Little Women (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"I think the title [of Little Women] has been so off-putting for men over the generations. They feel this is a terribly 'girly' story. But it's actually a wonderful epic tale about family where men's roles are just as important and deeply involved in the story... It is... full of heartfelt emotion and such memorable characters whose lively appeal transcends the years."
- Gillian Armstrong, director of Little Women

This third, and most recent, film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic 1868 novel about family and crossing the barrier between girlhood and womanhood, is a treatment for today's audiences. As faithful to the original story as a two-hour production is likely to be, Little Women is in ways similar and dissimilar to its two cinematic predecessors (released in 1933 and 1949).

This tale of four independent sisters of differing temperaments is undeniably melodramatic, but it's very good melodrama, with an accumulation of vitality and charm that elevates the movie to an unexpectedly high level. The basic plot of Little Women isn't terribly original or invigorating; it's the effective realization of several memorable characters that gives this film its strength.

For those not familiar with the novel, it centers around the March demesne of Orchard House in Concord, Mass. With her husband away fighting in the Civil War, Marmee (Susan Sarandon) is left alone to care for her four daughters: the volatile and imaginative Jo (Winona Ryder), the sophisticated Meg (Trini Alvarado), the compassionate Beth (Claire Danes), and the romantic Amy (Kirsten Dunst as a child and Samantha Mathis as an adult). The girls share a bond that no outsider can penetrate, although there are some willing to make the attempt -- most of whom are men. There's Laurie (Christian Bale), a neighbor with a passion for the piano who becomes a friend to all the Marches; John Brooke (Eric Stoltz), a poor tutor who is smitten with Meg; and Professor Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne), a German immigrant who develops a friendship with Jo.

With rich, colorful cinematography (the Autumn scenes are especially vibrant) and a fine score by Thomas Newman, Little Women is technically accomplished. It's the performances, however, that make this movie special. Winona Ryder fashions a near-perfect Jo, Alcott's headstrong alter-ego in the fictional autobiography. Had it been demanded of her, the actress undoubtedly could have carried the entire film. However, this version allows the other sisters some development independent of Jo, and all the actresses hold their own. The only hiccup comes as a result of the change in the aging Amy from the energetic and charismatic Kirsten Dunst to the more sedate Samantha Mathis.

Christian Bale, after a couple of extremely weak performances (in Newsies and Swing Kids), finally displays some recognizable talent. In fact, Bale is so solid as Laurie that it's hard to credit this actor as the same one who joined Robert Sean Leonard in the streets of Nazi Germany.

Perhaps the greatest fault -- and some may not see it as such -- is that even the best-developed characters in Little Women display an alarming lack of character flaws. Everyone is almost always good, kind, sweet, and pleasant. Rare are the moments when someone says something nasty or does something unsavory. So much niceness occasionally makes Little Women seem too sugary and scripted. Nevertheless, the tale is engrossing enough, and the film put together with such obvious affection, that it's not hard to dismiss those things as necessary elements of a beloved period piece.

Little Women (United States, 1994)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 1994-12-21
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1