With the release of Greta Gerwig’s stunning production of Little Women in 2019, the original book written by Louisa May Alcott, the opportunity arises to look back at the previous Little Women film directed by Gillian Armstrong. Watching the 1992 film for the second time, many things ring true—Armstrong sets up the narrative story arc for the movie supremely well, carried by a cast of excellent actresses and introduces the context for the story without using an overabundance of exposition. But the most important aspect of the beginning of the 1994 Little Women is how it builds its characters quickly and effectively. Throughout its entirety, the film displays effective and powerful character development, which brings the characters to life, bringing the audience into the movie.
Disney famously employs basic characterization when it comes to the beginning of films, often having the protagonist of the story help some innocent creature or person who needs help at their own expense. Disney exploits human emotions by siding with a protagonist who cares about other people, because it is effective and still is effective to this day. Armstrong makes use of this trope in her movie but adds a holiday flavor to differentiate it from the traditional “saving the puppy” moment. Little Women’s “saving the puppy” moment comes in the first ten minutes of her film when the sisters hear of another family living down the street from them who do not have food for Christmas breakfast. The sisters, who just moments previously savored food set on the table, proceed to then take the most prized parts of the meal to the family in need.
While the common Christmas theme of sharing permeates through this scene, weakening the overall impact, due to the acting experiences of the actresses, this friendly gesture feels all the more real. Gillian Armstrong also takes another step in personalizing her characters in the beginning of the movie. Often, in the first minutes of a film, directors will not take risks in having the characters experience emotional moments before the audience truly accepts the characters on screen. However, in Armstrong’s Little Women, the emotional outbursts by the actresses humanize their characters and endear their characters to the audience. Armstrong goes farther than many others in creating the loving environment the March sisters grow up in by having the sisters address their mother by the childish name, “mommy,” which is repeated throughout the movie. The use of this name creates a feeling of familiarity between the sisters and the mother. Simple actions such as these as well as positive actions pursued by the protagonists endear them to the audience.
Another reason Armstrong’s Little Women is so powerful is because the director brought the audience into the March family’s lives by showing them their actions rather than relying on dialogue and exposition. Telling your audience why they should support the protagonists rather than showing is considered one of the worst mistakes any director could commit, and Armstrong strenuously avoided this mistake throughout the movie. In the previous example where the March sisters took their Christmas dinner to their poorer neighbors, the audience watches them leave their house and trudge through the snow to the driveway all while singing a little Christmas song with their hands full of food. This visual demonstration of the sisters’ commitment to helping the poor just further improves their standings with the audience.
Through making use of talented actresses and creating lovable characters by firmly establishing them as protagonists, the movie comes alive as the audience associates themselves with the sisters. Their very human behavior, as displayed through their actions rather than their words, deepens the impact of the movie. Thus, while some sequences in the film feel idealized and cliché, it does not affect the film. We all have a tendency to do wrong rather than good. Even though we know that the actors on screen are merely playing a role, we admire the characters they portray. Even if these actions that these actors do not always amaze the audience, they point to the natural human temperament of empathy towards others. In conclusion, good story tellers enthrall their audiences with story, but truly great story tellers enthrall their audiences with character.
Meet the Author
Peter Ray is a 17-year-old teenager who has just recently moved back to Texas after 12 years overseas. He previously was the film columnist, but due to extraneous circumstances, dropped out of clay only to return to collaborate with Emily Green, with her writing an article briefly reviewing the new 2020 movie and him reviewing the old 1994 movie. He takes all his classes with TPS: AP Physics, Advanced Comp, Precalculus, College US History, and CADD 1 and is super glad to have finished out this year.
His favorite thing about writing is how one can profoundly change a person’s perspective through a written medium. He loves reading books, both fiction and non-fiction, which question reality and delve into why and how it functions.