"Kit Kittredge" isn't as smart as its plucky protagonist. 

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Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" offers a couple of firsts. It's the first movie adaptation of the American Girl doll series to receive theatrical release, and its star role is the first lead for young acting phenomenon Abigail Breslin, best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in "Little Miss Sunshine." Those hoping this seemingly perfect pairing of talent and commercial value would yield a classic children's film might be a little disappointed, however. "Kit" is stocked with fine lessons for children and a general enthusiasm from its cast, but weak direction and a flabby ending fail to pull the story together in a convincing or exceptionally entertaining way. If the star, an aspiring reporter, were to investigate, even she might call it a little dull.

When we meet Breslin's Kit, she's leading members of her secret club from its neatly appointed treehouse and observing the doings of the Depression-era neighborhood, where some residents of what looks like a solidly upper-middle-class street are going through hard times. Hearing tales of friends selling eggs and wearing feed-sack clothing, Kit is alarmed when her dad (Chris O'Donnell) loses his car dealership and leaves to find work. Her mother (Julia Ormond) decides to take in boarders, which include a dance instructor (Jane Krakowski), a ditzy librarian (Joan Cusack) and a goofy magician (Stanley Tucci).ÿ

Kit also invites hobo kids Will (Max Thieriot of "Jumper") and Countee (Willow Smith) to help out around the house in exchange for food as she and her cohorts try to solve the mystery of a recent crime spree (blamed on those burgeoning hobo populations camped around the country), all while trying to impress the local newspaper chief (Wallace Shawn) into giving her a byline. The movie squeezes in a little history and a lot of admirable messages along the way. There's guidance about compassion, the danger of stereotypes and building a community. It's straightforward and earnest, but also saddled with uninspired, broad performances from cast members who seem to have been encouraged to act that way.

Ask why, and the filmmakers, including "Mansfield Park" director Patricia Rozema, might claim that the movie's for kids. But kids can handle real performances, and it's especially disappointing to see Breslin pantomime along with everyone else when you know she's capable of far more. Her Kit didn't need to win her an Oscar, but she could have been asked to do more than give exposition and gape at plot developments. It isn't easy to tell the story of an exceptional kid with such an average story. (G) 101 min. ÿS


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