While other networks are dishing out stale holiday leftovers, the WB serves up a sugary-sweet treat with its first original movie, “Samantha: An American Girl Holiday.” Based on the most popular character in the American Girl line of dolls and books, pic is a politically correct take on life at the turn of the 20th century.
With this inaugural event, the WB is poised to create a franchise of films, especially with Julia Roberts as exec producer. But if the aim here is to launch a line of enduring family classics, the network needs to look beyond the valley of the dolls.
Australian filmmaker Nadia Tess creates a visually luscious but fairly shallow Victorian melodrama centered around 9-year-old Samantha Parkington (newcomer AnnaSophia Robb). Still mourning the death of her parents, Samantha is sent to live with her newlywed uncle in New York. There, she’s torn between the formal standards of her Grandmary Edward (Mia Farrow) and the radical ideas of her Aunt Cornelia (Rebecca Mader). When Samantha discovers her best friend Nellie (Kelsey Lewis) has been shuffled off to an unsavory orphanage, she takes it upon herself to liberate her friend.
While the Samantha of doll and book fame experiences these adventures throughout a series of stories, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Marsha Norman covers everything from child labor to the suffrage movement as well as class struggles and corruption in a mere two hours. Forget subtlety. There isn’t time, what with all the issues to discuss. Here, one little dry cough spells imminent death and plot points are wrapped up as neatly as a Christmas present. Pic works best in the smaller moments, when the clash between the old and new, the haves and have-nots, slowly infiltrate Samantha’s charmed life.
Robb and Lewis, the movie’s young stars, are as cute and multi-dimensional as the dolls they’re based upon. Farrow adds a degree of legitimacy in a fairly thankless matron’s role but mostly just magnifies the inexperience of the young cast.
Rocco Matteo’s production design and Trysha Bakker’s costumes superbly evoke the grandeur and elegance of the Victorian era, giving lenser David Parker plenty of eye candy to play with.