A straightforward, not particularly engrossing story of camaraderie among boys, “Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men” seems a calculated attempt to benefit from Gillian Armstrong’s well-received “Little Women,” released four years ago. But whereas that film’s success was enhanced by a combination of strong casting and the novel’s long-standing reputation as a classic, new pic will have an uphill B.O. battle, in part because the book is not as well known as its predecessor. While the presence of Alcott’s name in the title of this wholesome but probably too sentimental pic may rally a few fans of the Armstrong film, it has neither the directorial nuances nor the acting strengths of the earlier production.
New tale follows the adventures of Nat (Michael Caloz) and Dan (Ben Cook), two street urchins with a penchant for trouble. About to be apprehended for petty theft, Nat becomes the recipient of a kindly benefactor’s goodwill and goes to live at Plumfield, the happy, peaceful school run by Jo (Mariel Hemingway) and Fritz Bhaer (Chris Sarandon). Meanwhile, surviving on his wits, Dan eludes the authorities.
At Plumfield, Nat reforms beautifully, learning the virtue of honesty, kindness and fair play. But when Dan turns up unexpectedly and the Bhaers agree to take him in, Plumfield’s tranquil life is disrupted violently. No sooner has Dan arrived than he’s encouraging the other boys to fist-fight, play poker and drink. Over Fritz’s objections, Jo insists they give Dan time to assimilate, but when his behavior proves too inflammatory, Dan is sent away. Remainder of pic deals with the boys’ attempt to cope with Dan’s departure and his eventual return, which provokes a lesson in valor and ethics.
Long on morality but weak on dramatic tension, pic is at its best when capturing the boys’ conflicting tendencies of toughness and naivete.
Thesping of young actors is above average all around, with Caloz and Cook in particular bringing conviction to their roles. They are a study in contrasts: Caloz has the innocence and physical frailty of a fawn, while Cook has the self-possession and cockiness of a pre-adolescent James Cagney.
Adult actors are fine in what are essentially secondary roles. As Jo, Hemingway has the requisite pluck and resourcefulness that Winona Ryder and Katharine Hepburn brought to the character in previous incarnations. However, Jo’s relentless positivism — so appropriate in the earlier film versions of “Little Women” — can seem unintentionally cloying in the company of so many little men.
Canadian helmer Rodney Gibbons’ direction is adequate if uninspired, as he fails to compensate for the script’s predictable patterns and occasionally stilted dialogue. Milan Kymicka’s score strikes the right balance of sentimentality and strength.