‘Little Women,’ Skywalkers and narrative legacy

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    Timothée Chalamet and Florence Pugh in Columbia Pictures’ LITTLE WOMEN.

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    Timothée Chalamet and Florence Pugh in Columbia Pictures’ LITTLE WOMEN.

By TYLER WILSON

For Coeur Voice

Millions of words have already been spilled online and in print about the latest “Star Wars” adventure, “The Rise of Skywalker.” A formal review at this point seems unnecessary, but in short, “The Rise of Skywalker” is a gigantic mess.

As entertaining as it can be in stretches, the narrative suffers from too many inconsistencies and unfocused attempts to connect the movie to the greater “Star Wars” mythology. It hastily wraps this trilogy’s new characters into a rehash of old ideas just so Disney could claim the film as the “dramatic conclusion” to a nine-movie saga. It feels rushed and confused even as director J.J. Abrams leans on the structure and thematic ideas of 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.”

I mention all this not to kick a popular blockbuster. It’s okay to like “The Rise of Skywalker,” just like it was okay for me to really like “The Last Jedi.” However, I do think there’s value in comparing the shortcomings of “Rise of Skywalker” to the success of the other holiday blockbuster of 2019 - writer/director Greta Gerwig’s incredible adaptation of “Little Women.”

Okay, so the “Star Wars” movie currently sits at a billion dollars in box office receipts while “Little Women” so far banked a tiny fraction of that. Still, Gerwig’s film works because she takes significant narrative risks with the structure of Louisa May Alcott’s classic story.

Aside from being beautifully staged and anchored with an impeccable cast (most especially Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh), Gerwig’s “Little Women” scrambles its timeline in order to elevate drama and emphasize thematic ideas. Rather than telling the story of the March sisters chronologically, Gerwig connects moments between the March sisters’ life together under one roof and what happens to them all separately later in life. It’s a disorienting choice for a few early minutes, in part because the same actors play both sides of the timeline, but Gerwig utilizes a number of visual techniques to differentiate between the storylines.

Alcott’s story is obviously a good one, as we’ve seen numerous adaptations of “Little Women.” The 1994 version with Winona Ryder is certainly admired for its faithfulness, though compared to Gerwig’s new version, that film plays like the stuffy version kids might watch just to pass an exam. It plays the beats but struggles to find the thematic resonance of the story itself.

Meanwhile, Gerwig’s version is alive with ideas and heart, and the narrative structure works to ratchet narrative tension and better serve the individual character arcs.

Gerwig also does something particularly bold with the ending, which I won’t detail here. That climax, however, exists as a better blueprint of how “The Rise of Skywalker” could have gone about closing the “Star Wars” mainline saga.

Without divulging too many plot details, “The Rise of Skywalker” attempts to modernize the climax of “Return of the Jedi” by adding what Tim the Tool Man Taylor might call, “MORE POWER!” More spaceships led by Lando Calrissian, more Death Stars, more redemptive acts by confused villains, more advice from the great beyond, more electro-hands, more, more, more. At least in its final hour, “Rise of Skywalker” is an amped, crackhead version of the 1983 trilogy capper.

If anybody could pull that off, it’s J.J. Abrams, who used the basic story structure of “A New Hope” for this new trilogy’s first film, “The Force Awakens,” in order to restore confidence in the “Star Wars” mythos after the poor reception to George Lucas’ prequel trilogy.

However, this trilogy’s middle film, “The Last Jedi,” obviously didn’t mesh well with whatever Abrams had in mind for the climax, because much of “The Rise of Skywalker’s” busy first act operates to essentially reset the narrative back onto a path that leads to the resurrection of Emperor Palpatine, a legacy character who hasn’t been a factor in the last two movies, Abrams’ “Force Awakens” included.

The story itself in “Rise of Skywalker” is hastily concocted and fails to provide reasonable explanation to why anything happens to characters old and new. Even if that was better executed, the film seems content to retrace the relative narrative success of the original trilogy’s conclusion without any modern artistic vision (other than deploying 20 more action sequences).

“The Last Jedi,” however you feel about the choices made there, at least provided an opportunity for this trilogy to use the original “Star Wars” mythos to tell a different story. “Rise of Skywalker” reverts back to the same light side-dark side, Palpatine scheming, magic bloodline storytelling we’ve had for 40 years already.

I’m not pretending to be the guy who knows how “Star Wars” should be executed going forward, but the new “Little Women” demonstrates how filmmakers can make bold and exciting choices while still being faithful to the legacy of the source material. It’s not necessarily wrong that Abrams chose to rehash “Return of the Jedi” for “Rise of Skywalker,” it’s that the attempt doesn’t rise beyond a “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” explanation.

I generally like Abrams as a filmmaker, especially once I learned to embrace his career-spanning tendency to tug on nostalgic heartstrings. Oddly, “Rise of Skywalker” seems absent of his warmth, suggesting to me at least that Disney/LucasFilm execs had conflicting hands all over this production from the start. Given the money involved to finance and market a franchise as huge as “Star Wars,” it isn’t surprising to see the soul stripped out of it.

Obviously, adapting a bold new “Little Women” certainly doesn’t have the same kind of risk involved. Nevertheless, its creative and financial success should serve as a beacon of light in an industry consumed by the dark side or rehashing and rebranding.

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Tyler Wilson can be reached at twilson@cdapress.com. He is the co-host of Old Millennials Remember Movies, available everywhere you find podcasts and at OldMillennialsRemember.com.

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