American Girl’s ‘Maryellen 1955’: Very Careful Family Fare

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large
Yahoo TV
Photo: Amazon

A series of short films based on the American Girl dolls have been produced over the past few years. The latest carries the long-winded title An American Girl Story Maryellen 1955: Extraordinary Christmas. The title role is performed by Alyvia Alyn Lind, who played Dolly Parton in last year’s Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors.

Set in the mid-1950s, we find Maryellen, one of the middle children in a large Florida family. Her mom is played by Mary McCormack (In Plain Sight). Maryellen is a tomboy-ish kid — Is it acceptable to call a girl a “tomboy” these days? — whom we first meet shopping with her mom and siblings in a large department store. Maryellen scandalizes her mother for trying on a pair of what she calls “pants” but which look like jeans, and which in the 1950s we would have called dungarees, but whatever — if there’s one thing this production wants to do, it’s to eradicate the way people actually thought and talked in the 1950s and replace it with 21st-century-acceptable thoughts and language.

Thus when Maryellen’s youthful case of polio is mentioned in connection to a child she’s met who also suffers from the disease, one young character says, “You mean she’s a cripple?” and the next line is a fiercely censorious, “We don’t use that word!” Well, sorry: We did use that word. Lots of people did. The vast majority of them didn’t mean any harm, they just didn’t know better.

Maryellen is stuffed with female-positive messages, as when McCormack’s character tells Maryellen she worked in a factory during World War II making airplanes, which shocks Maryellen — she didn’t know girls could work outside the home. Later, her dad will say that her sister Joanie could grow up to be an engineer. “But she’s a girl!” someone protests. Ah, kids back then — f they only knew what we know now.

Related: Ken Tucker Reviews PBS’s New ‘Anne of Green Gables’

Which is the problem with this production. It’s so busy force-feeding its young 2016 audience with proper 2016 attitudes, it fails to capture what the 1950s were like, which might actually be entertaining to any American Girl doll owner. The production tries, but it keeps getting little things wrong, such as a glimpse of a TV broadcasting the daytime game show Queen for a Day — a program that didn’t premiere on television until 1956.

Lind and McCormack and the rest of the cast are just fine; they’re just not that much fun. Better to play with the dolls for which this is a marketing tie-in. And if your kid wants to know what life was like in the 1950s, he or she will get a slightly more accurate version of it by watching Antenna TV’s reruns of Leave It to Beaver. Not that my mom ever went around the house doing chores dressed in a dress, heels, and pearls, but at least the dialogue is more realistic than Maryellen’s is.

An American Girl Story Maryellen 1955: Extraordinary Christmas begins streaming Friday on Amazon Prime.