This is a web anthology series of American Girl specials.
tek's rating: ¾
Melody 1963: Love Has to Win
Amazon; AmericanGirl.com (article); IMDb; Wikia; Wikipedia
Released October 21, 2016. Set in Detroit, in 1963. It features a very bright, inventive, and generally upbeat young Black girl named Melody Ellison (Marsai Martin, best known from Black-ish). She lives with her mother, Frances, and grandfather, Frank. (Her father was a war hero who's apparently dead.) Melody likes designing costumes, and playing piano with her mother (or at least turning pages of the sheet music while her mother plays). Frances tries to protect Melody from the harsh realities of Black life in America at that time, and provide hope that things will get better. Frank is more cynical; after all he's seen and suffered in his life, he doesn't see much hope for a brighter future, and would rather prepare Melody for the truth. And it doesn't take long for Melody to start learning the truth about racism and hatred, both through things she hears in the news, and from how she's treated by various people in her school and elsewhere, as well as by seeing how her mother's boss treats Frances. Gradually, Melody becomes more outspoken about the unfairness of it all. And while she seems unlikely to change most of the minds of people around her, she does make one white friend named Trish. And her teacher, Miss Abbott (Frances Fisher), who seems angry at Melody at first for her disruptive behavior, does eventually begin to become more supportive of her efforts. The story culminates in a benefit concert Melody's mother plays at church, for the victims of a church bombing in Birmingham that had killed four Black girls around Melody's age.
That's all I really want to say about the plot, but I did think Melody was a pretty good character, and a good figure for people (of any race) who didn't live through that era to get a very basic vicarious introduction to the injustice of it all. (There's also a follow-up documentary called "Melody's World, 1963: A Time of Change, which is worth taking a look at.) Anyway, the film has a very After School Special vibe, and I think it works well on that level. It's targeted at kids, obviously, and hopefully it will inspire them to start asking questions and doing research on these issues, including the ways in which, despite mostly surface-level changes that have been made since the 60s, the issues run deep and are still a long way from being fixed.
tek's rating: ½
Maryellen 1955: Extraordinary Christmas
Amazon; AmericanGirl.com; IMDb; Wikia; Wikipedia
Released November 25, 2016. Set in Daytona Beach, FL, in 1955. The character Maryellen Larkin was previously seen in the short film Maryellen and the Brightest Star, which was set in the previous year. (But this special has a totally different cast than that short film.) I watched this in September 2017, more than a year after I watched the other film, and I kind of thought I should rewatch it before watching this, to refresh my memory about the character, but instead I just read the review I wrote back then. So... I'm not sure how much information was new to this special and how much I might just have forgotten. For example, my earlier review just mentions one of Maryellen's older sisters, Carolyn. Chances are the film showed or at least mentioned her other siblings, but I don't remember them. But this special shows us all of them, including her younger sister and brother, Beverly and Tom, and most importantly, her oldest sister, Joan. We learn that Joan really likes reading and learning, and that she has a boyfriend named Jerry. Also, Kay Larkin (the mother of all the kids) has an old friend named Connie, who is coming to stay with the Larkins, along with her son, Benji. (We really hardly see anything of Connie at all, because Benji is more important to the plot.) Benji had recovered from polio, but had a complication with one of his legs, so he had to come to Florida to get a special operation. (We also learn in this special that Maryellen had previously had polio, herself, which is something I don't remember whether it was mentioned in the previous film. Though I'm sure it must have been the focus of one of the books or stories or whatever that are associated with the character's doll, which I wouldn't know about.)
Anyway... the special has some feminist elements, as did the previous film. Like Maryellen's wanting to wear pants, and not understanding why she wasn't allowed to (at least in public). And wondering why women couldn't have jobs and be moms. And stuff. Certainly I thought that was an important aspect of the character, so it would have been odd (and disappointing) if that hadn't been included here. But the special is more about other things. It's nearly Christmas (as the title suggests), and what Maryellen wants more than anything is to go to Georgia to stay with her grandparents, who live in the mountains. Her mom grew up there, and Maryellen is fascinated by the idea of having snow at Christmas. (Incidentally, Connie and Benji are also from Georgia, but I guess they don't get snow, because they don't live in the mountains.) Meanwhile, when Maryellen and her friend Davy go to visit Benji in the hospital, they see a ward full of kids who will have to spend Christmas there, and Maryellen wants to do something special for all of them. Davy, on the other hand, is kind of freaked out by the sick kids, which eventually leads to an argument between him and Maryellen. Also, there's a doctor (played by Kurt Fuller), who at first seems somewhat discouraging towards Maryellen's efforts, but later on becomes encouraging. (Also later on, Maryellen and Davy make up, of course.) And um... Maryellen figures out what to do for the kids based on advice from her mother: listen to what other people have to say. Luckily, she manages to tie this advice into her artistic talents (which we saw in the previous film because she made a comic book, but here it's just about drawing). Several people throughout the special compliment Maryellen on her artistic skills, and I'm kind of surprised by how surprised she was by the compliments. Like, how did she not already know she was an artist?
Anyway... I'm not sure what else to say. But it's a pretty decent story with decent characters. (And decent acting all around; I notice in my review of the other film, I wasn't impressed by the acting of any of the characters except Maryellen. I have no complaints about anyone in this special, though.)
tek's rating: ½
Ivy & Julie 1976: A Happy Balance
Amazon; IMDb; Wikia
Released March 24, 2017. Set in San Francisco, in 1976. The title characters were previously seen in the short film And the Tiara Goes To..., which was set in 1974. More importantly, Julie was the main character in that film, and Ivy was a supporting character. In this special, that's reversed. The main character Ivy Ling, is on a gymnastics team, and they have an important competition coming up... which happens to be on Chinese New Year. And Ivy's entire family is flying in from all over to celebrate the holiday together. This is super important to her parents, because the entire family has never been together for Chinese New Year before. What's more, Julie's family has been invited to the Ling family dinner, and her parents had recently divorced. Ever since then, Julie's sister and father haven't been on speaking terms, and Julie sees this dinner as an opportunity to get them talking to each other again. On the other hand, she totally wants to support Ivy at her competition. Meanwhile... oh, man, there's just so much going on here, I can't explain it all. (And I feel bad about that, because there's a lot of good, nuanced, inter-generational stuff.) But it boils down to Ivy having to make a choice that would either let down her family or let down her team, both of which seem like completely unacceptable options. But as the title suggests, the story does end with a happy balance. (Like, surprisingly happy.)
tek's rating: meh and a half
Summer Camp, Friends for Life
Amazon; AmericanGirl.com (article); IMDb; Wikia
Released June 9, 2017. First I want to say that while the first three specials are listed in the TV section of Amazon Video (each one considered its own "season" of An American Girl Story), this special is listed in the movies section, separate from the other specials. The only reason I can think of for it to be separate from the other three specials is that it features a contemporary American Girl character (Suzie "Z" Yang) instead of historical characters. But even if it would kind of make sense to be considered a separate series, I still think it's weird for it to be in the movie section, especially since it's actually shorter than the other three specials (whereas I would expect a "movie" to be longer).
Anyway, I guess it's set in 2017. Z and her friend Paz (whose name sounds like "paws" or "pause") are attending a summer camp called STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math), which is run by a woman named Rae (Camryn Manheim). Z is an aspiring filmmaker, and Paz is an aspiring engineer. There's also a girl named Drew, who's into gardening and bugs, and who seems a bit over-enthusiastic. She obviously wants to befriend Z and Paz, though they basically ignore her. They're too wrapped up in their resentment of Rae's having taken away everyone's phones and not letting anyone into the camp's labs or whatever, preferring that the campers spend time with one another and with nature. Then one day, Z and Paz meet an older girl named Jordan, who says she loves the camp and has spent the last ten summers there... although she also mentions the camp used to be run differently than it is this year. But she soon captures the two younger girls' imagination, as she seems pretty cool. But events soon lead them to wonder if she even really exists. So, they have a mystery to solve. And finally, they invite Drew to join them.
I don't want to say how it all ends, but I guess it wasn't bad. I mean... I didn't really like this special, not nearly as much as the first three. I just didn't think much of the dialog felt even remotely realistic. The mystery itself was okay, and the lesson it ultimately led them to was pretty decent. And I thought there were a few moments that were mildly amusing. Of course, I'm hardly the target audience, so it's not really my place to judge whether any aspect of the story or the dialog are believable, let alone interesting or fun or anything. Still, I can't help judging. And this one's just not to my taste, I guess. But I do hope there will be more American Girl specials, whether with historical or contemporary characters....