A Year in Shorts Day 52: "The Little Matchgirl"
Despite the fact that he wrote incredibly depressing stories about death and despair, the works of Hans Christian Anderson have proven to be incredibly popular with Disney. From features like The Little Mermaid and Frozen to shorts like The Ugly Duckling or The Steadfast Tin Soldier from Fantasia 2000, Disney sure loves to take his stories, bring them to life and throw a nice happy ending in there for good measure. But apparently they decided to break from tradition with today’s short, The Little Matchgirl.
The Little Matchgirl, much like Lorenzo before it, began life as a segment for the canceled project Fantasia 2006, and once again serves as a sad reminder of what could have been. Then again, if Fantasia 2006 had been made, I wouldn't be covering The Little Matchgirl as a part of our Year in Shorts, would I? Whatever the case, the short was developed by director Roger Allers (best known for co-directing The Lion King) and producers Don Hahn and BAKER BLOODWORTH!!!
Although the short is by and large very faithful to Anderson's story, there are a few changes made. Most notably was changing the setting from Holland to pre-revolution St. Petersburg, which was done partially to fit in with Fantasia 2006's concept, which was to showcase music from around the world. As such, a Russian composition was chosen for the piece (the third movement from Borodin's "String Quartet No. 2 in D Major) over their original choice, Debussy's "Clair de Lune".
Incidentally, the original Fantasia was also supposed to have a "Clair de Lune" sequence which wound up being cut. The animation was then recycled for their later film, Make Mine Music, but with a different piece of music used instead. Apparently "Clair de Lune" and Disney just aren't meant to mix!
Whatever the reasons for the changes, I think they worked out very well for the film. "Claire de Lune", while certainly iconic, wouldn't add much to the story. It feels like a choice made more out of name recognition than anything else. Instead, Roger Allers chose a lesser known composition that fit the story much better, and was less distracting as a result. And the use of St. Petersburg's architecture leads to some truly stunning backdrops, all done in watercolor. This was apparently the last Disney project to use CAPS animation, which I'm sure is interesting to at least one person reading this.
In case you couldn't tell by how much I've already written about it, I really love this short. The animation is gorgeous, with expressive characters and a simple but effective use of complementary colors to accentuate the difference between reality and fantasy. The music helps drive the short forward without overpowering it. And unlike the previous version of this story we've covered, the fantasy never overwhelms the story. The central tragedy is always there, even when the matchgirl gets a brief escape. This not only keeps the story on track, but it helps sell the ending better.
It is, perhaps, unfair to compare this short to The OTHER Little Match Girl, but I think doing so better highlights some of my problems with that film. For one thing, the character design here is far less aggressively cute (which is an odd thing to say about a Disney film). And whereas the portrayal of people's indifference in the older short was very obvious and in your face, here it's more subtle and morose. A particularly poignant example comes when a policeman arrives to keep the matchgirl from climbing on a lamp; the second he puts her back on the ground, he goes back to ignoring her. The government is there only to enforce the rules, not to help a small girl trying to make enough money to avoid freezing to death.
The Little Matchgirl was released in 2006 after four years of production. Interestingly, part of the reason it took so long to complete was that Disney (surprise surprise) wanted to give the short a happy ending. Obviously nothing else worked, and eventually cooler heads prevailed and allowed the film to exist as is.
And what a gorgeous film we have! While it is a shame Fantasia 2006 was abandoned, I'm glad we at least have some of the segments to let us reflect on what could have been. The Little Matchgirl, also like Lorenzo, didn't win the Oscar the year it was released, losing instead to Torill Kove's The Danish Poet. I have not seen that short, but I'm willing to bet it's a damn good one, and very likely deserving of that Oscar!
Either way, I highly recommend The Little Matchgirl to anyone in the mood for something a little sad, beautiful and (unfortunately) timeless this holiday season.
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For those who want more in-depth information on this short's production, Animation Art Conservation has a great article here which helped me with research for today's post.
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