Our review of Little Women, published November 28th, 2001, is also available.
The story that has lived in our hearts for generations, now comes to the screen.
Little Women is the latest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel of the same name. I believe this 1994 version directed by Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Oscar and Lucinda) is the one most faithful to its literary roots, and is an entertaining and moving movie as well. It is perhaps unfortunate that this film is perceived to be only a "chick flick" or one for young girls, as I think it also works as a family film. Of course women will not be disappointed in the strong characters and performances of the female members of the cast. An exceptionally strong cast and screen adaptation along with a great attention to detail in set and costume design contribute to making this a memorable film, even for this jaded male reviewer. Columbia also delivers the goods in another typically strong DVD.
The easy way out in this review would be to assume you had read the book and move on, but that would be reckless of me. The story is of a family; a woman and her four daughters left alone while the father is off fighting in the Civil War. Set in New England, it captures the Victorian period of society and those on the fringes of the higher echelons of it during that period perfectly. The book was largely autobiographical, and the character that represents the author is personified in Jo March, a strong willed adolescent determined to make her way in the world as an author without succumbing to the restrictions society places on her gender. Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice, Heathers, Bram Stoker's Dracula) really shines and shows off her versatility in her performance as Jo. The family is led by Marmee, the quintessential Mom figure who also is ahead of her time in attitudes and education, and is warmly and capably portrayed by Susan Sarandon (Stepmom, Anywhere But Here, Thelma and Louise).
Jo's siblings include the pretty and proper Meg, played by Trini Alvarado (The Frighteners), and the frail and musically inclined Beth (Claire Danes, The Rainmaker, Brokedown Palace, How to Make an American Quilt). The youngest sister Amy is played by two actresses; the younger Amy is performed by Kirsten Dunst (Jumanji, Interview with the Vampire) in an engaging and precocious manner, and when the movie shifts forward in time by Samantha Mathis (The American President, Broken Arrow, American Psycho). Besides this strong female presence, there are several notable male roles. Christian Bale (American Psycho, Metroland) plays Laurie (a nickname, don't ask), a neighbor whose rich family and male gender offer him more than the women can attain, but who truly cares for the family and one or more of the sisters. His character undergoes growth and change as well; and adds to rather than detract from or be swallowed by the large female presence. Eric Stoltz (The Fly II, Mr. Jealousy, Rob Roy) plays the proper gentleman John Brooke who woos Meg in a less demanding but still involving role, the fathers of both Jo and Laurie have scenes that are effective and moving. Gabriel Byrne (End of Days, Stigmata, Enemy of the State) plays a German immigrant professor who woos Jo after she leaves the nest to pursue her writing career in one of his most intriguing roles to date. Considering he's played Satan himself, that says something.
The story is more a series of anecdotes underlying a theme of family life and struggle to find one's place in the world and reaching for dreams. The romances, would be romances, and life changing events of the characters are studied, but even deeper I think is the day to day life and exploration of family and sisterhood. The privations of wartime, the changing of attitudes, and the progress of breaking into a previously male profession all are parts of the plot, but in some ways are mere dressing for the study of the people as they go through them.
I find the movie a bit hard to explain. On the surface nothing sounds that interesting. That surface information, along with a movie that screams "chick flick" from its title, would have made me a bit wary. Fortunately I had read the book, and even if I hadn't, the film would have won me over anyway. The many moving scenes can bring a tear to almost anyone, all powerfully performed. Not me of course; I just had a cold. *Sniffle* See, just a cold. At any rate, it is powerful drama without resorting to melodrama, interesting characters that are alternately moving and humorous, and gives a period authenticity to a film that still isn't dated. I highly recommend the film.
On to the DVD treatment then. Columbia has given the red carpet treatment to this labeled Collector's Edition disc. A very nice anamorphic transfer, multiple soundtracks including English DD 5.1 and Dolby Surround, and a large collection of extras make this disc one that belongs on a film collector's shelf.
This is a re-release of a prior Columbia barebones disc and uses the same transfer. While I do have one quibble with it, the picture is quite clear and has a very nice look. The color palette is a bit muted befitting the period feel of the film, but all colors, including blacks and fleshtones, are well rendered. Darker scenes have varying degrees of detail ranging from adequate to superb, and detail in the rest of the scenes varies from a bit soft to sharp. I don't mean to imply that there is any disconcerting shifts in detail; nothing is truly wrong with the picture at all. Overall it has a very nice look, not worthy of complaint except from the more finicky of videophiles and DVD reviewers who look for such minor flaws as part of their job.
I only truly reviewed the English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, but is a fine track with everything you need to hear clear and smooth. As a drama, the surrounds don't get much of a workout, and little directional use of channels are made, but the front soundstage is wide and spacious, while the score takes more advantage of all channels and envelopes you in its sweet but not cloying musical goodness. While it's not a track to show off your system with, what drama is? Dialogue is clear and distinct, with a warm sound to the whole presentation. Absolutely no complaints.
As I said above, Columbia re-released this disc with plenty of extras this time around. First and foremost is the feature length commentary with Australian director Gillian Armstrong. She gave a very nice and informative behind the scenes look at how the film was made, and had plenty of praise for her cast and crew. Only a few pauses slow down the pace of the comments, and they are not long enough to reach the annoying stage. One of the better commentary tracks. A leaflet in the case with production notes is noteworthy also. Two deleted scenes are also offered with or without commentary, but neither were important and one would have been downright silly to include. A little timeline where you pick a time period and it explains the progress of the novel and films of Little Women comes next, and is informative enough. Two trivia games are more interesting to play than to win, but are okay. I enjoyed the Costume and Production Design featurette more; while it is only about six minutes it was informative and entertaining. Talent Files that are more robust and informative than usual for Columbia is next, a move I heartily endorse. The "Making Of" Featurette is next, but with only a few behind the scenes shots to go past normal marketing fluff. Theatrical trailers for Little Women, Jumanji, Hook, and Madeline are also offered, along with an isolated musical score soundtrack. I applaud tracks such as these, but wish we could have had the composer talk between musical passages to fill the time. Again, overall I'm very pleased, and it adds quite a bit of value to the disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I really have no quibbles with the film, but for those with short attention spans or a craving for action this might not be so pleasing. The film comes in just under two hours but can seem a bit slow if you're waiting "for something to happen." Most viewers I think will not feel this way; I am fairly jaded and I still loved the movie.
The disc only has a few minor complaints. One part of the transfer which I considered less than trivial was the presence of motion artifacts. Just some small loss in edge detail as characters moved in broad movement such as walking. It's not terribly noticeable, but it is there pretty much throughout. In this regard the transfer isn't quite up to Columbia's high standards, but it isn't easily noticeable and I give the transfer overall high marks despite it.
My other complaint is with some of the extras. I'm happy to get whatever we get usually but some of these seem there just to be there. The trivia games in particular were not very fun, and resulted in one case with a three-second clip from the movie as a reward and in the other with a list of six book titles by Louisa May Alcott for winning the game. Likewise the "Making Of" featurette was mainly marketing fluff and could have been much better at really telling us how the movie was made. We have differing numbers for seemingly identical extras sometimes because of this. Some features or commentaries are great, others not so good. Overall a very nice package, especially the commentary track, but those two entries were lacking. High marks for thorough talent files for the cast and crew though.
Lovers of period films and good drama will like this movie very much. I think most of you will at least like it and I recommend it for purchase or a good rental. The disc is a true collector's edition. If you have particularly high standards for video (higher than mine) then you might want to rent first to see how distracting you think the video is, but I don't think the minor problems are worth more than a mention. The soundtrack, the extras, and of course the film foremost recommend it highly.
Columbia and all involved with Little Women have my respect and admiration. Winona Ryder and the rest of the cast were uniformly wonderful and I commend their performances. Case dismissed!
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