Originally published December 15th, 2012
Part two of my three-part series of Little Women reviews discusses the 1994 version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic. This is the Little Women I grew up with folks, and it’s probably the more star-studded of the three to modern audiences (which is not to say that the 1949 version doesn’t have its share of mega-stars). I started comparing the ’49 version to this one in my first review, so I’ll probably be mentioning that film in here. All in all, I like this version although I think it loses the fun of the ’49 version, and replaces it with a claustrophobic sense of sentimentality. A few of the casting choices irk me, as well as the tone of the film, but who am I kidding I watch this even when it’s not Christmas.
With their father fighting in the Civil War, the once prominent March family struggles to make ends meet. The events within the March household are documented throughout by daughter Jo (Winona Ryder) who dreams of being a writer.
I’ve seen this version of Little Women more times than I can count. On its own merits the film is fun, heartwarming, and sentimental. I mentioned in my review of the ’49 adaptation that the story remains consistent throughout, and that’s how this version goes for the most part. Both versions I’ve reviewed run about the same length, this being about five minutes shorter, and yet I still find the Jo March section to be the weakest. The film adds a little feminist slant to this version considering it’s release in the 90s that feels like pandering. Jo makes a few comments before leaving for New York about feminine independence, but it’s not until she gets to New York and actually joins in a discussion with men about female voting that it becomes apparent. It’s an interesting comment to make considering Jo is such an independent character, but the lone scene feels blatantly as if the screenwriter is saying “See we added some feminism for you strong-willed ladies.” It’s contradictory since the film loses the more overt instances of Jo professing her desire to be a boy. In this one I believe Jo only mentions wanting to be a boy once. I think Little Women has always thrived on the interactions between the March sisters, and when Jo goes out on her own you feel that loss of kinship. Much of this could also be attributed to the actress playing Jo.
This is Winona Ryder’s film more than any of the other actresses and it’s both good and bad. I like Ryder as an actress. She’s turned in some phenomenal performances, and this is up there as one of her best. I appreciate how she didn’t try to play Katherine Hepburn (as I felt June Allyson did in the ’49 one), but made the character her own. She’s fiery, dominant, funny, and charming which makes it obvious why everyone would love her – except Amy, but I’ll get to that in a minute. On the flipside the movie does feel front-loaded to feature her, and only her. The ’49 adaptation gave individual scenes to the other actresses, but here almost all the scenes have Jo in them and leading them. Thankfully Ryder’s smile and good humor don’t make it feel bad (I’d hate to see how this would play with a less than stellar actress), but the film doesn’t feel as balanced as the other version. There’s also casting decisions in this film I don’t care for; particularly Kirsten Dunst as Amy and Claire Danes as Beth.
I have a love/hate appreciation for Kirsten Dunst. I’ve seen every movie she’s made, some of them are easily in my Top 100 of all time, and yet Dunst can be exceedingly annoying in certain regards…especially here. I enjoyed making Amy older in the ’49 installment because it lessened her childishness. Here, that childish quality is in full effect and if you find little girls annoying then I give you Amy March; maybe it’s because I never had a sister, but boy does this kid annoy me. When Amy falls through the ice, I was hoping against all hope that Jo just left her to die. Dunst is good at playing the cute kid, as she herself was only twelve when she made it, but that’s it. She’s replaced in the second half by Samantha Mathis who feels stiff in the role. She doesn’t have the mastery of the time period, and says all her lines like a stilted socialite. Claire Danes feels similarly dull as Beth. Audiences debate which Beth is the best of the series; so far I believe it’s Margaret O’Brien in the ’49 one. Here, Dane is just dull; even in the scenes where she’s meant to be happy, she just has this pallor that feels distanced and bored. When she does get sick, and finally dies, I didn’t care because Danes doesn’t do anything to set herself apart; she’s just the March sister that dies.
The other March sister, Meg (Trini Alvarado) is good, but as I mentioned in my last review she doesn’t have the same meat to her plot. The ’49 version develops and elongates the romance between her and John Brooke (played here by Eric Stoltz), but in this one it’s just a relationship that develops on the fringes. Oddly enough, the John Brooke here is written as nerdy so as to dissuade Meg from marrying him. The only scene where Meg’s character is sufficiently fleshed out is when she goes to a debutante ball and becomes wrapped up in fancy clothes. I thought this scene did do a lot for her character, but the message is confusing. It’s obvious all the March girls wish they were wealthier in some way, and in this particular moment Meg is reveling in being a normal girl obsessed with clothes and boys. However, the film tells the audience this is bad with Laurie (Christian Bale…pre-everything) arriving and calling Meg a variety names that mean slut. Why does he need to make her ashamed of how she’s acting? She’s having fun, and while it’s shallow, why not let her be normal and forget her troubles for one day? And why have Laurie be the one who chastises her?
Oh yes, one cannot forget Laurie. Laurie’s actually the one factor that confuses this movie and muddles any attempts this film makes at being a 90s, feminist look at Little Women. I’m not making that assertion blindly, it is evident in the scene of Jo talking to the men that the filmmakers want to address post-feminism in this film. Unfortunately, Laurie arrives to ruin all of it. Christian Bale is darling and adorable as all hell in this film, but the way Laurie’s written is atrocious. He starts out the film as a character that has a sweet and sentimental relationship with Jo, and yet by the end he comes off bipolar. His scenes with Amy have a menace to them that isn’t understood. He tells Amy that he always believed he should be a member of the March family which is why he wants to marry her. Did anyone else find that weird? Amy does say she doesn’t wish to be married for her family, but the screenplay seals their marriage through a letter Laurie writes apologizing. Is that a sufficient way of saying he’s a totally changed man? I don’t believe it. It also furthers the competition between Amy and Jo. When they’re children the two sisters fight and make-up, but here there’s tension that feels palpable between the two women that is supposed to dissipate by Amy saying she’s sorry. The film cuts corners by the end, hoping that a trite apology just makes everything disappear.
One really has to take this film as separate from the ’33 and ’49 installments as it’s the one that feels different. The humor of the ’49 version is removed in favor of sentimentality and family which is not at all bad. I do feel the first half is stronger than the second as the first has such heart and sweetness to it. Winona Ryder feels balanced in the first half compared to the second where she’s forced to steer the story. The changes in the second half feel contrived and foreboding, casting a sheen over this film of post-feminist competition that isn’t warranted or needed. I do recommend watching this one because Ryder is fantastic as well as Bale (for the most part) and the other March siblings (the only one who doesn’t pass muster at all is Danes).
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.