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Greta Gerwig enriches the story of ‘Little Women’, one of the year’s best

Four Stars (out of four)

They released “Little Women” on Christmas Day — obviously, they want Oscar attention and they’ll get it — but all year long we end up starved for anything that is not a superhero movie. Anything that’s really worth seeing and and all of a sudden, at the end of the year, you have these great movies that are being released, and this is one of them.

There was a 1994 version of “Little Women”, which was directed by Gillian Armstrong and was a great movie. It was with Susan Sarandon who played Marmee, the mother of the four little girls growing up in New England in the 1850s. Those little girls included Claire Danes and Kristen Dunce and Winona Ryder, who actually got an Oscar nomination for the role. And this was one of the first big roles for Christian Bale, and it’s great fun to look back at that old film. The new film is even better.

The film is directed by Greta Gerwig, who created one of the most highly acclaimed films of recent years, “Lady Bird”. You may remember Saoirse Ronan as the star of “Lady Bird”, star of “Brooklyn”, who is a wonderful young Irish actress. She will get the Best Actress nomination for her role as Jo March.

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What the film does that’s different from previous adaptations of “Little Women” is that it flashes back and forth in time, and it actually conflates the real life story of Louisa May Alcott — who wrote the book — and the character who is her stand-in, the fictionalized version of herself. She really did have three sisters and it’s all extraordinarily well executed.

The film is gorgeous and has wonderful visual splendor, with a wonderful musical score by Alexandre Desplat which I think has to be a front runner for Best Musical Score.

For those people who don’t know the books and don’t know the plots and haven’t seen the previous films, this will be a complete, thorough delight. And other people will have a very special delight of seeing how cleverly they have enriched the story.

The only questionable change is the character of Professor Bhaer. He’s very much in the novels and in previous versions, and was played by Gabriel Byrne in the 1994 film. Here he becomes — for reasons known only to Greta Gerwig — a Frenchman, and it’s even sort of an indeterminate Frenchman. But he’s also much younger than he is in the book.

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So with that complaint in mind, this movie still deserves four stars, and it’s one of the best of the year. It sets up something that I don’t think we’ve ever had: an Oscar competition for Best Picture and Best Director between romantic partners. Greta Gerwig has been for almost a decade the romantic partner of Noah Baumbach, and Baumbach is the director writer of “A Marriage Story”, which is a guaranteed nominee for Best Picture. I think that because of the great desire to honor and encourage female directors, Greta Gerwig may have the edge for that Oscar category.

This film is rated PG and actually for little girls who love the books — and that’s basically every little girl who has been exposed to them — the film should be perfectly accessible. There is, of course, significant plot points involving illness and death, which would make it too scary for very little children.

Other than that, this is a PG rating which is appropriate. “Cats”, for instance, is also rated PG but there’s a world of difference. One is actually for children who have been very, very good and deserve a treat, and the other should be reserved only for children who need some punishment. But I’m not suggesting that you punish them with “Cats”. There’s an Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, which we don’t want to violate.

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