IsabellecoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
2014, 100 min., Color
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV Digital Copy
Bonus features: None

With Isabelle Dances into the Spotlight, American Girl celebrates 10 years of being in the filmmaking business. What began as a way to add historical backstories to dolls that “came” from certain periods in history has evolved into the marketing of contemporary dramas. The former taught the target audience of 3-12 year old girls what it would be like to live during a different era, while the latter have focused on little girls’ dreams and desires and the things that can get in the way of success.

Kit Kitredge: An American Girl (2008) was the last film set in a historical period, with An American Girl: Chrissa Stands Strong tackling bullying as an issue the following year, An American Girl: McKenna Shoots for the Stars spotlighting a young gymnast and the trials of competition, and An American Girl: Saige Paints the Sky crafting a story about a girl with artistic aspirations who also goes to a ranch camp, where there’s plenty of horseback riding.

The historical dramas were better made, but the filmmakers are obviously chasing a market, and most girls love art and horses, right? That’s obviously what they were thinking, and they continue that two-for-one approach with Isabelle Dances into the Spotlight.

Isabellescreen1In this 2014 direct-to-video release, Erin Pitt (ironically, a Canadian actress) plays American Girl Isabelle Palmer, a young girl who dreams of studying ballet at a high level, but who also has an interest in and aptitude for fashion—though this aspect is really glossed over in the film. We’re told that the heroine is nine years old, but even young girls will notice that Pitt looks every bit of her 15 years. Is that a problem? Not really, but parents may wonder why the screenwriters couldn’t have made her 12, or speculate that if she were slightly older, maybe we wouldn’t have to endure so much cutesy Cosby Show banter and Barbie movie giggles.

The American Girl films present problems for the main characters to work through, and confidence and second/middle child syndrome are at issue here, with Isabelle trying to cope with the fact that her older sister, Jade (Grace Davidson, Radio Disney Music Awards), is a far better student and the more accomplished and assured dancer.

Since one theme is that siblings should be able to understand each other and get along, sibling rivalry doesn’t get out of hand or push the plot toward a crisis. The girls clearly love and support each other. Rather, the conflict comes at the hands of a mean girl named Renata (Genneya Walton), and it’s Isabelle’s own easily shattered confidence that threatens to derail the young dancer’s hopes and dreams.  For boys in the family and parents it will be something that’s watched out of courtesy, but it’s a well made film considering the target audience. The action takes place at a dance school, where students have been given the opportunity to audition for a performance of The Nutcracker in which the girls’ idol, Jackie Sanchez will dance as the Sugar Plum Fairy. What’s more, the top performers will win places at a prestigious New York summer dance program. Isabellescreen2

Would-be ballerinas in your household will be impressed that Sanchez is played by First Soloist Tanya Howard of The National Ballet of Canada, but wonder why Isabelle is performing “Snow” in ballet slippers instead of pointe shoes, and possibly cringe every time she falls so spectacularly during relatively basic moves. That said, the dancers in your life should like this American Girl movie more than the previous contemporary offerings because of the emphasis on dance—even when the dance happens to be a spontaneous cafeteria number that feels ripped from the pages of High School Musical.

The target audience will overlook all of the above-mentioned flaws, and not just because it’s all about dance. The characters are engaging, and the film is about things that concern young girls: getting along with friends, frenemies and siblings; building confidence; and working hard to make dreams come true. The production may be mostly Canadian—what’s made in the U.S. these days, after all?—but the themes are still all-American girl.