In the Dark of Winter, Movies to Lighten the Mood

`Little Women' and `Jungle Book' enliven family viewing

The holiday season is prime time for movies aimed at family audiences, and the last days of 1994 have brought some good examples of the breed - not only suitable for a wide range of age groups and interests, but actually fun to watch if old-fashioned entertainment is what you're after.

``Little Women'' is the smartest and sweetest of the current crop, with lovable characters in a story that's still compelling after all these years. ``The Jungle Book'' is less inspired but quite lively, giving new spark to the venerable ``boys' adventure'' genre.

Directed by Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong, the new ``Little Women'' has a long pedigree to live up to - starting with the Louisa May Alcott novel that originated the story in 1868, and continuing through two movies that still have enthusiastic fans. The first, made by George Cukor in 1933, features Joan Bennett and Spring Byington while giving Katharine Hepburn one of the most memorable roles of her career; the second, directed by Mervyn LeRoy in 1949, teams June Allyson with Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh.

STAYING true to this tradition of strong ensemble casting, the latest ``Little Women'' stars Susan Sarandon as Marmee, the gentle matriarch of the March household, and Winona Ryder and Trini Alvarado as Jo and Meg, two of her four daughters.

Supporting players include Christian Bale and Eric Stoltz as neighbors of the family, and Gabriel Byrne, who sheds his Irish accent for the German tones of Professor Bhaer, one of the suitors who approach the marriageable Marches from time to time. Also on hand are Claire Danes as Beth and the team of Samantha Mathis and Kirsten Dunst, ideally suited to play Amy at two different stages in life.

Rejecting the option of updating Alcott's novel, screenwriter Robin Swicord retains its 1860s setting, and peppers the dialogue with references to matters as varied as the Civil War and the Transcendentalist philosophy that has made an imprint on the March family.

The film's depiction of 19th-century life in Concord, Mass., is more nostalgic than realistic - the Marches live quite comfortably for a family on the social and financial skids - but their story is so lovingly rendered that it's easy to overlook the lack of naturalistic detail.

What makes the movie a superior specimen of traditional screen storytelling is largely the exquisite care director Armstrong has taken to make every shot as radiantly appealing as possible, bathing even the melancholy aspects of the plot in a glow that's as pleasing to the eye as it is warming to the heart.

The performances follow suit, bringing out the best in all the characters.

Everyone skillfully accomplishes this pleasant task, although Ryder deserves an extra share of credit for fulfilling the promise she showed earlier in ``The Age of Innocence'' and ``Bram Stoker's Dracula.'' How far she's traveled from the teeny-bopper days of ``Heathers'' and ``Mermaids.''

For all the winning qualities that ``Little Women'' has, a caveat is in order. It's important that Armstrong's movie be seen for what it is - a superbly crafted exercise in wistful nostalgia -

rather than an accurate vision of the American past.

Marmee looks so comfy and cozy as she performs her daily chores, and her daughters seem so spunky and spirited as they negotiate the challenges of growing up, that it's tempting to forget the very real hardships faced by women (little and otherwise) in a period when social hierarchies and male privileges were even more entrenched than they are today.

The new ``Little Women'' paints a portrait of family values that's as simplistic as it is seductive. While it's a pleasure to behold, moviegoers longing for a mythical past should remember that Hollywood-style sentiment is not a reliable doorway to cultural or historical understanding.

`The Jungle Book'' takes its inspiration from Rudyard Kipling's tales of Mowgli, a little boy lost in the jungles of India and raised by animals who become his only friends. The movie picks up steam when he runs into the British military, whose plans for subduing the Indian subcontinent make no allowances for a wild child more interested in wooing the commander's daughter than advancing the cause of English imperialism.

Mowgli's adventures have been filmed before, most notably in an excellent 1967 animation from Walt Disney Pictures, which also made this year's film.

Disney's promotion for the new movie pays lip service to issues like ecology and wilderness preservation, but the film itself cares about nothing more serious than Jason Scott Lee's ability to look great in a loincloth as he scampers through his harrowing escapades.

Scurrying to keep up with him are Lena Headey as his would-be girlfriend, Sam Neill as her military dad, and John Cleese in a wonderful turn as an English physician out of his element. All give perky performances under director Stephen Sommers, who wrote the screenplay with Ronald Yanover and Mark D. Geldman. The cinematography is by Juan Ruiz-Anchia in one of his more restrained moods.

* ``Little Women'' has a PG rating; it contains scenes of illness and mourning. ``The Jungle Book'' is also rated PG; it contains intense action and violence that might be upsetting for very young audiences.

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