Little Women (1994)

I first watched this about a decade ago, after a friend recommended it as a Christmas movie. I recall being a little annoyed at the time, both because I didn't particularly enjoy watching it and because it failed to meet my tests for qualifying as a Christmas movie. Upon re-watch, I stand by my assertion this is not, according to any meaningful use of the term, holiday entertainment (though I do have some thoughts on how Christmas is used). As for not thinking much of it, well... I'm glad I didn't review it back then.

This adaptation is quite good, whether or not I was capable of appreciating it when I first saw it. There are some fairly large caveats to that praise, which I'll get to, but it succeeds in what it sets out to do, which is to adapt the story for the era it was made for. In this case, that largely meant updating characters and feminist themes to be more relevant to girls of the '90s. The movie focuses more heavily on Jo's writing than earlier films, and Marmee is transformed into something of a progressive-minded genius in ways that are maybe a tad silly in hindsight (though Susan Sarandon absolutely sells it).

The movie deviates from the earlier adaptations in significantly more ways than those two differed from each other. The opening Christmas sequence is significantly muted, both in how it's framed and what's included. The movie includes a truncated version of the March sisters bringing their breakfast to a needy family, but the bit where they used the money given to them by their aunt to purchase gifts for their mother is gone, as is the sequence in which Mr. Laurence sends them a huge feast. The music in this sequence isn't particularly Christmassy, the color pallet is drab, and there's not much celebration. It's presented as something of an underwhelming holiday.

That said, the holiday has more of a tail than we usually see. There are extended winter scenes afterward in which the movie has Amy fall through the ice and a handful of other adventures and developments. It's all seemingly set after the holidays, but the imagery sticks with that of northeastern winter for a while. 

Interestingly we get a second Christmas later, in which the patriarch of the March family returns. The tone here is a bit complicated - the return of the girls' father is naturally presented as a happy event, as is Mr. Laurence gifting his piano to Beth, who's still recovering from her illness (as a side note, the piano is a bit out of left field here, as this version entirely cuts the setup for their friendship). However, the movie also includes Meg's engagement in this sequence, so Jo is mostly heartbroken.

Director Gillian Armstrong chooses to frame this Christmas very differently than the first, using traditional music and warm colors to portray a more traditionally joyous affair. I assume the idea was to play off the contrast between the visual and auditory signifiers of an iconic Christmas with the sense of impending loss. I'm not sure it quite works conceptually, since we're essentially mixing our classic holiday movie tones. Since this is mainly from Jo's perspective, wouldn't it have made more sense to paint the first Christmas as bright and joyous despite the lack of material wealth, then use visual cues to have the second match her darkening mood? The way it's filmed, the real contrast is with Jo being sad while everyone else is happy, which - to be fair - works well enough visually but muddles the point-of-view.

But that's an academic nitpick, obviously. As are most of my complaints, in fact. Still, there's palpable strain between the movie's desire to recontextualize and update the story with a desire to protect the major plot points, and in my opinion, changing more of what happens would have resulted in a better film.

But probably not a better adaptation, which brings me back to what I said at the start: this does a very good job delivering what it sets out to do. It's first and foremost a kid's movie, albeit one that looks and feels more like a lavishly produced period piece than what you'd typically expect from the genre. Everything looks gorgeous - the cinematography is stunning, the costumes are fantastic, and the sets are at once realistic and evocative.

And of course the performances are excellent. I already mentioned Sarandon, who - sorry, side note: I love how similar Marmee feels to Mom Racer fourteen years later (it wouldn't surprise me if this was the movie that convinced the Wachowski sisters to hire her). At any rate, she's fantastic here.

Same goes for Winona Ryder as Jo. All the sisters were well cast, but the movie ultimately rests on Jo's shoulders, and Ryder proves to have been a particularly inspired pick. She comes across as believably of the era while still still being updated enough to feel modern. That had to be a difficult balancing act, but Ryder makes it look easy.

The two leading men are slightly more complicated. Christian Bale (then 20) plays Laurie, and Gabriel Byrne is Friedrich Bhaer. Note I said complicated, not bad: both deliver good performances. First, the age difference between Byrne and Ryder - while absolutely in keeping with the source material - feels a bit awkward due to the movie's themes. Again, this is a situation where the movie strains a bit to reconcile its ambition to update with fidelity to the books.

There's nothing inherently wrong with Bale, either, but the actor's subsequent filmography transforms the way a pivotal scene plays. In the sequence where Laurie professes his love to Jo, Bale's briefly sounds eerily like he's using his Batman voice, and it's hard not to laugh.

Speaking of laughing, there's not much to be found in this version. This opts to treat the story first and foremost as a dramatic one, rather than a comedy. Whether that's a bug or feature will depend on your preferences. Personally, I'm generally happier when kid-friendly stuff leans towards comedy, since it's unable to fully explore the darker emotional aspects where drama shines, but - again - preference does not equate quality.

As a historical kids' movie with gorgeous production values and phenomenal performances, this has quality to spare. At times, I almost think the movie's too good, as the fact it feels like a serious drama makes limitations imposed by its target demographic stand out. Sequences like Beth's death or Amy and Laurie's romance feel a bit childish compared to the visuals.

But there's a reason this movie was beloved by a generation of girls. Nitpicks aside, Armstrong adapts the classic into something modern without changing the core of the story. It's also worth noting that this paves the way for future adaptations to move away from that core and innovate (but more on that next time).

But I still don't think it's a Christmas movie, even if the movie's odd choices around how the holidays are presented make for a fascinating study.