American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
In my review of “Little Women” (1994), I wrote, “The very title summons up preconceptions of treacly do-gooders in a smarmy children's story.” I was relieved to report that the movie itself was nothing of the sort; it was a spirited and intelligent retelling of the Louisa May Alcott classic. Now, alas, comes “Little Men,” which is indeed about treacly do-gooders in a smarmy children's story.
Although younger children may enjoy the movie on a simple and direct level, there's little depth or texture to make it interesting for viewers over the age of, say, 10. It's all on one note. The adults are all noble and enlightened, the boys are all basically good, and the story is all basically a sunny, innocent fable.
The year is 1871. The “little women” have all grown up, according to a narrator who tells us far more than she should have to. Jo (Mariel Hemingway) has married Fritz Bhaer (Chris Sarandon), and together they run Plumfield School, a country home for wayward or orphaned boys.
To Plumfield comes the Boston street urchin Nat (Michael Caloz) and, not long after, his best friend Dan (Ben Cook). There they find love, acceptance and lessons such as, “If a pie has 12 pieces and three-quarters of them are served at dinner, how many pieces are left?” All of the boys scribble industriously on their chalkboards to solve the puzzle, although since several of them are later involved in a game of poker, they would seem to have the necessary skills for mental calculation.