If you have a girl between the ages of 4 and 12 in your life, chances are pretty good you've heard of American Girl. The wildly successful franchise has spawned a whole series of high-end dolls, doll clothes, doll furniture and accessories, books, cookbooks ... and, of course, movies. American Girls are enormously popular with both girls and parents seeking a wholesome alternative to the freakishly-thin Barbie doll image or the hooker-in-training look of those wretched Bratz dolls. As an added bonus, they encourage girls to learn a little history, without even realizing it .

The whole thing with American Girl is that each of the dolls comes from a different time period: there's Kristen, an immigrant girl from Sweden; Felicity, an American Revolution girl whose father is a Patriot, while her best friend's father is a Loyalist; Samantha, being raised by her wealthy grandmother in the 1920s, when women's suffrage and class difference were big issues; Molly, a girl whose father, a doctor, is off serving in the Second World War; Addy, who escapes slavery with her mother to search for her father and brother, and so on. Each doll has her own set of books: there's the intro book, the birthday book, the book where so-and-so learns a lesson, the Christmas book, and even a line of mystery books.

There have been a couple of previous American Girl movies, made for television; my favorite was about Samantha (that one starred AnnaSophia Robb, in a pre-Bridge to Terabithia role that showed her promise as a young actress). After the success of those films (and, no doubt, hoping to spawn a new wave of merchandise sales at the popular American Girl Boutiques, website, and catalog), someone at American Girl said, "Hey, we should make a Kit Kittredge movie for the big screen! And let's get that cute little girl from Little Miss Sunshine to star as Kit!"

If you're going to make an American Girl movie for theaters, you want an actress with a big-screen presence, and Abigail Breslin certainly fits that bill. Wearing a blond wig in Kit's signature haircut, with a splash of freckles on her cute little nose, Breslin radiates the charm and innocence that's the hallmark of the American Girl brand. Kit's story is set in the dawning of the Great Depression; as the story opens, fathers are losing their jobs, families are losing their homes, and the greatest fear of Kit and her friends is that they might end up as dreaded "egg sellers" -- a sure sign to friends and neighbors that a family is on the brink of financial ruin. Meanwhile, Kit, a budding reporter, strives to write a story that her local paper will actually publish; it's a daunting task for a young girl, but Kit is not to be dissuaded from her dream.

There's a bit of a class prejudice running through Kit's story as well; Kit befriends Will (Max Thierot) and Countee (Willow Smith -- as in, daughter of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith) a couple of young hobos, and finds that most of those around her fear and discriminate against them, as if prejudice is some magic charm that might keep them from succumbing to the same fate. Kit's friend and next-door-neighbor loses her home, and the threat of tight finances and the looming possibility of foreclosure after Kit's father (Chris O'Donnell) loses his own job at a luxury car dealership puts a strain on her friendship with best pal Ruthie, whose father owns the bank that holds the mortgage.

Things really get going for the movie-version of Kit's story, though, when her mother (Julia Ormond) takes in a slew of eccentric boarders, including Miss Bond (Joan Cusack), a traveling librarian , Miss Dooley (Jane Krakowski), a dancer on a quest to find a husband, Jefferson Berk (Stanley Tucci), a magician, and young Stirling Howard (Zach Mills) and his hovering mom. When the Kittredge family savings, stored in mom's lock box, goes missing, Will is blamed for the theft and a string of other recent "hobo attacks"; naturally, it's up to Kit, Ruthie and Stirling to prove their friend is innocent and find out who really stole the money before the house is foreclosed on and Kit and her mom end up on the streets -- or worse, having to stay with Kit's wealthy grouch of an uncle.

It's a pretty simple story, though there is a nice twist at the end that I didn't see coming until right before it happened, but for what it is -- a movie targeted squarely at young girls -- it's all charmingly well-done, thanks largely to some nice performances by Thierot, Smith and especially Breslin. With a lesser actress in the role of Kit, this film would have been strictly in made-for-TV territory, but our Little Miss Sunshine brightens the screen in every scene, and adds a level of depth and earnestness that keeps Kit's head above the treacherous waters of sappiness.

There will be those who will bemoan Breslin's choice of roles post-Sunshine -- Nim's Island and Kit Kittredge certainly don't stretch the young thespian's acting chops -- but she seems (perhaps with some guidance from her parents) to be happy for now playing fun, "little girl" roles rather than reaching for another Oscar ring. And really, when you look at the history of overly pressured child stars and what happens to them, who can blame her? You're only a little girl once, and when you're that age, and have the opportunity to pick and choose your scripts, you might as well enjoy yourself a little bit and not grow up too fast. Breslin has talent to spare, and plenty of years to take on more serious, Oscar-worthy roles.

As for the film itself, girls who are into American Girls will find Kit Kittredge to be an enormously pleasing romp with one of their favorite characters (and yes, they'll probably clamor for their very own Kit doll, and Kit clothes, and Kit accessories, and Kit books ... ). Parents concerned about their own daughters growing up too fast can take refuge in Kit Kittredge as well; the film is wholesome and charming, there's nary a foul word to be heard, no nudity, no drug use, no violence -- just a nice little tale about a brave, spunky girl who saves the day.

And just because Kit's an American Girl doesn't mean the boys won't enjoy the film as well; I took my four kids (two girls and two boys) to the screening with me, and the boys enjoyed the film every bit as much as the girls did -- even my eight-year-old son, who grudgingly accompanied us only after extracting a promise that I'd take him to see The Incredible Hulk when it opened, said afterward, "Hey, that was really good! I thought it'd be stupid, but it wasn't!" As for my girls (ages 6 and 11), who own several American Girl dolls and a whole library of the books, they loved every minute of Kit Kittredge, thought Breslin was perfect in the role, and enjoyed the storyline.

We even had a nice, educational discussion on the way home about the Great Depression and hobos, the current economic situation in the U.S. (they wanted to know if their dad could lose his job like Kit's, and if we'd have to sell eggs or take in boarders if that happened), and the correlation between the class prejudice suffered by the hobos in the story and the plight of immigrants today. So, the kids got to see a fun movie that wasn't grating or intolerable for me to sit through, and I got to come out of it feeling like they'd learned something new that stimulated a nice current events discussion afterwards. All in all, that makes Kit Kittredge: An American Girl a winner in my book.