Criticizing "McKenna Shoots for the Stars" is kind of like criticizing a junior high play: you feel bad for doing it but unless your kids are involved, you really have to wonder if there's a reason why you should be watching. As I write these words, I feel like a bully, picking on someone small and defenseless but the bottom line is that the movie isn't very well written or acted and while there are some sweet things about it, the picture is so harmless that it becomes bland after a while. The story follows aspiring gymnast McKenna Brooks (Jade Pettyjohn) who injures herself while practicing a difficult routine. McKenna was struggling with her studies due to her busy schedule so her parents (Ian Ziering as Mr. Brooks and Nia Vardalos as Mrs. Brooks) get her a tutor. If she can improve her grades, she can get back into the competition once her ankle heals. McKenna really resents having to be tutored by Josie (Kerris Dorsey) and hides her after-school study session from her best friend Toulane (Ysa Penarejo). As she starts becoming friends with Josie, she and Toulane start to drift apart. Meanwhile, there's always the fear that even if she gets back to her old self, McKenna won't be able to make the big competition.
This was a made-for TV movie based on a doll that's meant to teach little girls some wholesome lessons about self-esteem and overcoming odds and in that sense, yeah the movie is fine. There's not really a bad guy in this movie, the problems are realistic and everyone watching will learn some nice lessons about not jumping to conclusions, being yourself, fulfilling your dreams, learning to ask for help and more. There are no lame love plots (something that should hardly ever appear in a children's film where everyone is a pre-teen) and it's kind of hard not to be won over by at least one of the stories of the girls taking a leap of faith and succeeding. Particularly effective for me was the sub-plot following Josie, who is in a wheelchair and dreams of riding a horse. What makes me vote negatively for this movie is the acting; it just isn't that good. Even the seasoned actors like Nia Vardalos aren't really giving it their all. I also cringed at some of the dialog, which is written to feel very artificial, not at all sounding like anything any 9-year-olds I know would say.
I could have gotten over all of these flaws because children don't notice bad acting (I can attest to that, some of my favorite movies as a kid feature unbearably wooden performances) and wouldn't give a second thought to the writing. The biggest flaw for me is that the film doesn't really have any bite to it. It just wraps itself up really clean, has humor that might make adults chuckle once in a while but is really only meant for little girls and feels like an after-school special. It's completely harmless and you might even learn something, but unless your little Princess demands that you sit down and watch this with her, there's no reason to.
Some people will say that I should consider the audience for this film and to them, I'll say this: Of course little girls will like McKenna's adventure. They'll probably love it and watch it over and over while brushing their McKenna doll's hair. But at a certain point, children will like anything they can follow and somewhat relate to, and they don't have the kind of exposure to see the flaws in movies. If I had a daughter of course I'd let her watch this but I'm not a little girl and I don't want to pretend that I am. I'm going to assume that you can read this review and tell for yourself if this is something you would want to see so I don't have to feel bad about giving this movie a 2 / 5. I can't do that and not feel a little bit guilty unfortunately, but even if it was playing on TV or you could rent it for free from the children's section of your local video store, you have no business watching this if you're an adult. I'm really sorry, crew of "McKenna shoots for the stars". I wish everyone involved the best but I have to be honest here and tell you that if you make a sequel, I'd watch it (because I am compelled to watch anything I set my hands on) but this film here, is just not that good. (On DVD, March 7, 2014)