Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC] & Dolby Surround, Spanish & Portuguese Dolby Surround, subtitles: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, single side-dual layer, 28 chapters, rated PG, 118 min., $27.95, street date 4/25/2000.
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Actress-Winona Ryder, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, 1995.
Directed by Gilliam Armstrong. Starring Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Samantha Mathis, Susan Sarandon, Christian Bale, Gabriel Byrne, Eric Stoltz.
With her husband off at war, Marmee is left alone to raise their four daughters -- her "little women." There is the spirited Jo; conservative Meg; fragile Beth; and romantic Amy. As the years pass, the sisters share some of the most cherished and painful memories of self-discovery, as Marmee and Aunt March guide them through issues of independence, romance and virtue.
Regular readers of my reviews know that I'm not just a man; I'm a man's man! So what in the world is a tough guy like me doing watching a "chick flick" as definitively mushy and sappy as Little Women? My job, I guess; Columbia-Tristar sent me a copy, so I suppose I'm stuck with it!
Admittedly, I wasn't too excited about the prospect of screening this film, but I must admit some curiosity. LW is a well-established classic of literature, but my knowledge of it remained quite weak; I never read the book and honestly knew little about the story beyond some extremely cursory facts. As such, I figured it'd be nice to finally have some comprehension of the tale.
Now that I've watched the film, I guess I can say that I know something about the story, but what a price to pay! 118 minutes of unadulterated pap, proto-feminist hogwash cast in the light of a gentle, semi-romantic period piece. I expected not to care for LW, and unfortunately, I got exactly what I expected.
Since I never read the book, I have no idea how closely this film hews to it, but I can state that a more appropriate title for this movie might be Little Woman. Yes, the March clan emerges intact with all four daughters and the annoying-titled matriarch "Marmee", but daughter Jo (Winona Ryder) clearly emerges as the focal point of the film, and for fairly obvious reasons; Jo appears as the most unconventional of the bunch, and definitely would be the one who the story's fans - the vast majority of whom I would estimate are female English majors who spend most of their time decrying the inequities of a male-dominated world - could most readily identify. Jo's sisters - who are all much more conventional and/or timid - get swept under the rug so we can focus on Jo's ever-so-modern boldness.
My disdain for this claptrap runs deep. No, it's not as bad as openly male-bashing films like Fried Green Tomatoes - possibly the worst movie ever made - but I genuinely dislike this kind picture, as I think it "empowers" women at the expense of men. Or something like that. Really, I had a hard time getting a handle on what the point of this film was. It has a lot of that "Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves" vibe, and the men in the movie are clearly viewed as nothing more than minor characters who are of uncertain usefulness - Father March is spoken of fondly while he's away at war, but once he's back at home, he becomes less than a non-entity - but the film can't quite rid itself of males once and for all, and it betrays an odd sentimentality toward romantic relationships.
What's it all mean? Who knows, but I think it's a case of a film that wants to have its cake and eat it too. LW won't go quite so far as to completed slam men, but it heads down that path, only to regain a romantic edge, probably because it allows for more conventionally happy proceedings.
The characters themselves never remotely rise above the level of stereotypes. Okay, Jo actually displays more self-doubt than most characters of her type, but she still seems pretty stuck in the "non-traditional woman" category, with all that entails. Meg (Trini Alvarado) never seems like more than a fairly shallow type who wants to marry, and Beth (Claire Danes) is just your sickly, kindly sort who manages virtually no personality at all. Amy (played by Kirsten Dunst as a young girl and by Samantha Mathis as a little bit older girl) also seems to lack definition, though at least she has a little spunk, unlike the exceptionally bland Beth. Dunst makes her the traditional semi-pesky little sister, while Mathis does absolutely nothing with the role; her portrayal equals the emptiness we see in Beth.
Sarandon has little to do as Marmee other than be the stoic center of the family, and she's believable as a pillar. In fact, with the exception of the stiff Mathis, all of the actors perform reasonably well in their parts, and the men in the cast adeptly portray the walking mannequins that are their characters. Unfortunately, none of them could even remotely overcome the triteness of the roles and make any of the parts - or the predictable and banal events of their dopey little lives - interesting or get me to care about the characters. As I watched Little Women, all I did care about was watching the display on my DVD player slowly - very slowly - work its way to that 118 minute mark. Once it did, I could happily eject this artificial and awkward pap from my DVD player.
Little Women appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. I've come to expect excellent transfers on Columbia-Tristar (CTS) DVDs, and this one did not disappoint me.
Sharpness generally seems very crisp and defined, although some gentle softness occasionally appeared; however, I believe those instances resulted from a combination of stylistic decisions and the warm, natural lighting used, so they don't seem to be problems due to the transfer. Jagged edges and moiré effects are largely absent, but I did see occasional "ropiness" due to the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. Other print flaws like grain, speckles, scratches or marks were not apparent.
Colors generally seemed muted within the warm, candle-lit world of this film, but they appeared accurate and realistically-saturated. Black levels were very good, and shadow detail seemed appropriately dense but not overly thick. All in all, it's another visual winner from CTS.
If you expect a real "whiz-bang" soundtrack from LW, you'll be sorely disappointed. As for me, I didn't expect anything of the sort - quiet chick flicks don't usually inspire aural satisfaction - but was pleased with what I heard. The soundstage hews largely to the front but spreads nicely across those three channels; the forward image was fairly broad and spatially well-designed. The surrounds didn't have a lot to do, but they contributed some nice ambience and even occasionally tossed in some nice split surround effects.
Audio quality seemed perfectly fine. As one might expect, LW is a very dialogue-heavy film, and the speech sounded good, with a natural quality and strong intelligibility. The score appeared warm and lush, and effects were clear and realistic. I wouldn't use this soundtrack to demo my system, but it gets the job done very nicely.
Little Women appears as a "Collector's Series" title, and CTS have indeed included a few nice supplements. First up is a decent audio commentary from director Gillian Armstrong. Actually, when I initially fired up this track, I almost had to halt it immediately; Armstrong welcomes us with a greeting that mentions she's happy to have us since our presence must mean we love the story as much as she does. Wrong! Nonetheless, I soldiered through her commentary and found it to be a somewhat dull but generally informative offering. She covers a variety of details about the production and does so efficiently and engagingly, although she could stand to seem a bit more critical; like many commentaries, Armstrong rarely presents any even slightly negative views of the film. Nonetheless, it's a worthwhile track for fans of the movie.
Another addition is the presence of Thomas Newman' score on an alternate audio track. The score appears in full Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. As I've mentioned in other reviews, I'm not much of a fan of movie music, but for those who enjoy them, supplements like this make for a nice treat.
We find a decent "making of..." featurette that runs for nearly seven minutes. Like most of these, we don't see much in the way of production details; this piece was clearly intended as a promotional clip and functions along those lines. Still, it's watchable, as it presents sound bites from the major cast and crew members.
More "behind the scenes" information comes in the "Costume and Production Design Gallery". This section is presented as a video program that runs for eight minutes; the designs and their on-screen results are accompanied by narration from costume designer Colleen Atwood. The feature offers a nice look at what Atwood tried to do with her designs.
Two deleted scenes appear on the DVD. Each runs for about 50 seconds and neither offers much of interest, though the second one made for an unusual stylistic departure. These can be watched either with the original audio or with Armstrong's commentary, which reveals why the scenes were omitted.
A brief "Historical Timeline" offers seven "significant" dates in the history of LW, from its original publication through a few other Louisa May Alcott-related occasions and all releases of LW films. I could have lived without this; it's pretty dull.
As are the two trivia games we find. Each of these ask some pretty easy questions and purport to "reward" you with a prize at the end of the task. One "prize" is a "special clip" - which is just a very short bit of the movie and didn't seem too special too me - and the other "reward" simply lists the names of some of Alcott's books. What a waste of time!
Finally, we find trailers for LW and other CTS "family classics" Jumanji, Hook and Madeline. The DVD's booklet also contains some brief but interesting production notes. The package finishes with the usual (useless) talent files for director Armstrong, producer Denise Di Novi, and five of the actresses; CTS create the least-compelling biographies in the business (they can't even be bothered to provide more than a "selected" filmography!).
If you decide to discard my opinion of the film because you know you already like it, you'll be more than delighted with the DVD of Little Women. It offers very good picture and sound and tosses in a few nice supplements as well. However, if my dislike of the movie means anything to you, you'll pass on this sucker. I found the movie to be a tremendously sappy and irritating piece of work that I hope to never experience again.
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