Where Oh Where has Our Molly Gone?

An in depth critique of the 2006 American Girl Molly movie

One would expect American Girl's Molly movie to outshine the others, like the crown of stars worn on Miss Victory's head. After all, this is their third and final offering before hitting the big screen. Additionally, they had the Disney channel connected to the movie this time, rather than the now-defunct WB network. Yet American Girl has sadly missed the mark with Molly: An American Girl on the Home Front.

My Background
I don't want to deem myself an expert on Molly, World War II, or movie production, because I'm not. However, Molly has been my favorite American Girl for nearly 20 years, and I've devoured her original six book series again and again in the past (nearly) two decades, until every detail is in my subconscious mind!

Yet it is with humbleness that I present my thoughts on Molly's movie. What I say is only opinion. While my finding has been that most people seem to have found the same faults in the Molly movie, this is not to say that viewers won't enjoy it. I also write not as a critic of American Girl, but as a fan. It's almost painful to state that I didn't like this movie. I've dreamed of Molly's stories being presented in live-action since I was young. Yet I know American Girl can do better and, indeed, their fans deserve better.

The Movie Apart from the Books
The two family members I watched the movie with didn't know a thing about Molly. One struggled not to fall asleep while the other read and made phone calls. This alone should indicate the movie's shortcomings--we're all normally fans of this genre. The acting was hit or miss--surprisingly, one of the most well-known actors seemed to do the worst job. However, that's not important, especially considering this is a made-for-TV movie, after all. The movie is presented in a series of vignettes that are hardly connected to one another, with a trauma about Dad added to the end of the movie in order to give some semblance of a typical climax and resolution storyline. It seems to be a movie without a focus, searching around for a plot. Rather than being a movie solely about Molly, Miss Campbell, Dad, and Emily get a lot of attention throughout.

The movie also makes promises that never come to fruition. Perhaps the most glaring one is the comment from Molly, while at the theater, that she is going to have a tea party for her birthday. One would assume it must be right around the corner, and the viewer anticipates the whole upcoming Molly-Emily feud, but her birthday is never again mentioned. The next time we hear about a tea party is Alison hoping to invite Emily over for one, and Molly telling her to do so. Here again, we never see Alison invite Emily, and we never see the tea party. These are but two examples of various loose ends present in the movie.
There is basically no character development whatsoever, but when there is, it is with people who were barely present in Molly's stories--and here we will have to refer to the books a bit, despite this section's header. For example, the movie back-tracks quite a ways to before Molly's dad left for the war, in order to establish Molly's relationship with her father. All of this could have taken place in a mere moment of Molly opening her locket and looking wistfully at it, or writing a letter to Dad, as she does in the books. It is obvious that Molly and her father have a wonderful relationship merely by the fact that she wears his photo around her neck at all times. Nearly half an hour of the movie is wasted in trying to establish a connection that could have taken a moment.
Molly and Emily's relationship is expounded upon (to be discussed later on), as is Molly's relationship with Miss Campbell, which is mostly tangential. In the books, Molly doesn't even know why her teacher wears a ring, and likes to dream up scenarios about it. In the movie, Molly knows all about her teacher, Miss Campbell, and even gets to meet her fiancee. Miss Campbell comes across as a rather timid and fragile creature who asks Molly to visit her whenever she wants. In the books, Molly is distanced from Miss Campbell and only dreams of getting to know her since Miss Campbell is all she isn't--pretty, confident, strong, elegant, and has perfect hair. The typical 1940s separation and distance between student-and-teacher/child-and-adult is present in the books; a respect for elders would have precluded Molly from having such an intimate and familiar relationship with Miss Campbell. Like children of today, children in Molly's time looked up to adults who were "perfect" (celebrities or other adults) who they could aspire to be like, while never really getting to know them--that's part of the fun for kids and what makes heroes seem so perfect. Molly aspires to be just like Miss Campbell from afar. This doesn't work with the movie's familiarity. Their relationship here--as equal-footing peers--is quite 21st century.
What these three independent story lines end up doing is drawing away from the central character and her life with her friends and family. We don't see any Molly-Ricky feuds, and we don't see Molly and her friends doing anything but going to the movies (which is played up so much that it quickly becomes dull). The original stories are largely about family dynamics, and such unnecessary divergences in the movie take away from that.
Adult viewers, perhaps so more than children, will also be quick to note over the top clichés and melodrama that are incredibly unrealistic. Miss Campbell is told of her fiancee's death during the spelling bee she is helping officiate, which interrupts the entire proceedings. Dad shows up during Molly's tap performance and watches from backstage. The child who wins Miss Victory is guaranteed instant fame. Dad is injured and with a cane at Christmastime, and the final words in the movie are a quote from like-injured Tiny Tim. Dad brings a book to Emily from her dad. He found time to track him down amidst serving during a war, being MIA, and injured.
The movie is also dark. It presents a wholly non-optimistic view of wartime. One would be surprised to know that this mentality generally did not exist during World War II. That leads to the next section.

Being such a Molly fan has naturally led to being interested in World War II, since I was a small girl. One of my favorite hobbies is listening to World War II radio broadcasts. Not only am I exposed to what life was like for people during this era, but I also get to hear advertisements for Tide, Colgate Tooth Powder (ew!), and advertisements for Ovaltine premiums. It is, as an English professor would deem it, the "full immersion experience." Additionally, both an uncle (during World War II) and my father (during peacetime, as a serviceman) participated in Christmas radio programs, so I feel connected to the Molly stories.

Molly's contemporaries did not have the same news coverage we have today. They were separated from the war, and the government controlled what they did know. Today we have "the media," a force unto itself, which largely controls what we see and hear.
Creating Molly's movie while an actual war is going on seems to be a detrimental factor. The movie presents yesterday's war with today's mindset in a time when people did not have close daily visual access to news. Bing Crosby would sing over the radio about "war on the homefront" in an upbeat march-tempo, Roosevelt would tell how well we were doing in his fireside chats, Abbott and Costello would encourage listeners to buy war bonds, and people felt that contributing to the war meant knitting socks, planting a garden, collecting scrap metal, and not buying rationed foods on the black market. War propoganda would have made everyone try to at least appear enthusiastic about the war. Molly not wanting her dad to go away overseas and complaining about it, as she does in the movie, would have been seen as quite unpatriotic and selfish, especially considering his vocation and the fact that their family did not already have a member in the service. Winning the "war at home" meant patriotism. During this time, children loved comic books and superheroes, and radio heroines like Little Orphan Annie. Good wore white and bad wore black, and the good side always won in the end. People made sacrifices without complaining, because they felt every little sacrifice was a contribution to the war effort and a boost for the U.S.A.'s morale.
In the movie, Molly looks upon the gold stars hanging in people's windows as horrible, and it almost comes across as a belief of a wasted life that is a wholly modern view, borne out of protestors and the Vietnam War. Despite the fact that they would be heartbroken beyond belief, the families of fallen soldiers during World War II would bear those stars in their windows as badges of honor for the sacrifices their young men made.
In the movie, Molly gets involved in the war effort a bit as a temporary volunteer, but this is made to seem unusual and commendable for a girl during her time. In reality, children were encouraged to be as patriotic as their parents. Their radio heroes asked them to participate in the war effort, and many radio and comic book plots centered around kids collecting scrap metal or saving up for war bonds. They might have donated their own toys to a scrap metal drive, or donated their money. They would not have asked "What can I do to help?" but, "Am I doing enough?"
Taken as a whole, what we have here in the Molly movie is a 21st-century mindset in a 1940s setting. The movie, by all intents and purposes and as evidenced on the company's website, was likely, at least in part, made to help girls today deal with their loved ones being away at war. Sadly, this commendable goal gets in the way of an actual storyline and plot, and also forces a strange combination of a war that took place in the 1940s coupled by characters who think like people alive today.

Merchandise Tie-In
Most of the endearing scenes and story-lines in Molly's books are completely left out (such as Molly and her siblings getting a tree, camping, her birthday, their snowball fight, school Lend a Hand projects, finding Dad's package and hiding it, Molly and her friends trying to give her a perm, Halloween . . . the list goes on), while some that were hardly necessary are disproportionately expanded upon, such as Emily's.

Which brings us to another point . . . Emily. Emily's story is largely missing from Molly's books. As a child I always wondered what happened to her, for she only appears in Happy Birthday, Molly, and then the girls never seem to see one another again, despite the fact that Emily is supposed to live with an aunt right there in Molly's hometown.
In the Molly movie, however, one finds great similarities to Samantha's movie. On Christmas morning, the father figure--be it Uncle Gard or Dad--declares that the visitors are family. Emily . . . family? Hardly so. Emily is merely staying with the McIntires for two weeks while while her aunt is recovering from pneumonia. Emily tap-dancing along with Miss Victory? Of course not. She isn't a tap dancer, and she moves in with her aunt months before the dance takes place.
One needn't wonder why such a minor book character is a focus of the movie. Looking at the American Girl store website will answer the question. Why? Because there's now an Emily doll. When word first leaked out, fans were in an uproar as to why Susan and Linda were not chosen to be Molly's "best friend doll." The movie tries to push the fact that Emily is Molly's best friend. While Susan and Linda practically make fun of Molly in one scene of tap and are hardly supportive of her attempts, Emily encourages her and gives her a standing ovation. Molly's true best friends were Susan and Linda, who in the book do encourage her about her tap, but they seem to blend into one highly bland creature in the movie. Neither has any development at all, and they treat Molly about the same way as her arch nemesis Alison. Fans of Molly will have to agree that her best friends got pushed aside in an effort to make Emily look like the true "best friend."

Little Changes Add Up to Big Changes
Perhaps one of the strangest aspects of the scriptwriting for this movie is how little things have been changed that would make absolutely no difference to the plot. For example, Mom being "Rosie the Riveter" is immaterial--she only mentions it, and it makes her be away from home frequently at dinnertime. Didn't her "original book" job as a Red Cross volunteer do just the same? While big changes (see next section) were possibly needed in order to tie this particular movie interpretation together, smaller changes that were unecessary come across as the writers thumbing their noses at loyal fans. "We can make changes if we want to, so nyah!"

Let's take a look at some of the little tweaks that were made.
Books Movie
Mrs. Gilford works as housekeeper Mrs. Gilford is a neighbor
Mom volunteers for the Red Cross Mom works as "Rosie the Riveter"
Molly has a little brother named Brad Brad doesn't exist
Ricky is blonde, older, and a huge pest Richard is brunette, is of an unknown age (he appears to be younger than Molly or the same age), and not very pesky
Dad's letters to the family are funny and full of jokes and drawings Dad's letters are straightforward and factual
Alison is a perfect, blonde, arch-rival of Molly Alison is brunette and barely present
Dad sends a box of Christmas gifts that Molly and Jill hide Dad hands out gifts in person, including one for Emily
Molly slowly comes to a realization that war is not fun and games Molly knows war is dangerous
Emily lost her dog in a bombing Emily lost her mom in a bombing
Emily stays with the family for two weeks Emily lives with them for so long that she is considered family
Emily will live with an aunt who is currently ill Emily was originally to live with a lady she doesn't know; it is ambigious as to whether or not she will stay on with the McIntires
Molly spends the summer at camp Molly spends the summer practicing tap
Dad comes back from war due to being restationed Dad comes back to war after being MIA and seriously wounded

Big Changes Make Molly Not Seem Like Molly
The main point of the entire original series is the Everyman quality of Molly; these qualities make her loveable and easy to identify with. She is supposed to be an average girl, one who dreams and imagines herself as one day being much better than she really is. She has average hair that won't curl, stinks at math, and comes up with ideas that are too big to work (like collecting bottle caps). She dreams and dreams, but her dreams don't come true in the end. Then, when she least expects it (and is sick in bed and thinks it's the end of the world), something amazing happens. Kind of like real life.

The movie version of Molly, however, is quite different, and much less of an Everyman tale.
Let's take a look at some of the major changes in the movie.
Books Movie
Molly is horrid at math bees She wins a major spelling bee competition in front of the entire school
Dad is present over the radio for Christmas Dad is present in person on a magically unexpected Christmas
Molly knows about Emily's visit ahead of time, and dreams (inaccurately) about what she will be like Emily's stay is out of the blue--with her standing right there
Molly's hair is horribly stubborn and will only remain straight She has lovely curly hair when she wants it
Molly gets sick and can't be Miss Victory Molly is Miss Victory
Molly's dad doesn't get to see her be Miss Victory He watches from the wings
Molly never plays Miss Victory in a program Winning the title means many shows and travel

In Closing
Perhaps where they most missed the mark was in not seeing the true message in Molly's books--it would still work today. Molly's original stories demonstrate how our family and friends, through love and humor, can help us hold everything together during difficult times.

Molly also learns throughout the course of the books that being average and predictable is what makes her so special, which is a wonderful message for girls to embrace. While the movie nods toward Molly's dad attempting to convince her of this truth, he does so at the beginning of the movie, and the message is quickly lost in the fact that Molly excels at just about everything she puts her mind to. Throughout the movie Molly's character is not average by any means other than in appearance, so it's almost off-putting that her father keeps emphasizing that she is his never-changing North Star.
American Girl has also repeatedly missed the mark in believing a Christmas movie must end with a Christmas scene. This has been done in Samantha's movie and Felicity's as well, and it is simply becoming formulaic. It also strongly hinders the plot-line and causes a shift in the story plot-lines due to the Christmas stories actually occuring in the middle of each series. Interestingly enough, The Ten Commandments is perceived as an Easter movie and The Sound of Music airs at the beginning of the holiday season. Why? Neither one is about the holidays they are connected to. They're "connected" to them simply because they are special movies that air at that time of year. American Girl's "Christmas" movies do not need to end with a holiday scene in order to be holiday movies, and in changing this the movies will be better able to hold to the original time-lines.
By trying to bow to today's war mindset and merchandise tie-ins the movie sacrifices plot and, sadder still, sacrifices a connection to its original books. Children's books come and go; a series selling well for 20 years should not be treated as if it is completely immaterial. The famous turnip impasse from Meet Molly is the only familiar scene that the movie offers as a nod to Molly's loyal fans. While Molly tries to leave her turnips behind, it's too bad that all Molly fans will be left with after watching this movie is sour grapes.

By Melissa Taylor, December 2006. The above should be taken only as an op-ed piece. The author has no relation to the American Girl company.

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