LITTLE WOMEN- * * * * - Winona Ryder, Gabriel Byrne, Trini Alvarado, Samantha Mathis, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, Christian Bale, Eric Stoltz, John Neville, Mary Wickes, Susan Sarandon; rated PG (mild violence); OPENS SUNDAY, CHRISTMAS DAY, at Carmike Creekside Plaza Theaters, the Gateway 6 Cinemas, Cineplex Odeon Midvalley, South Towne Center and Trolley Square Cinemas.

There have been five earlier movie versions of Louisa May Alcott's novel "Little Women" - a British film in 1917, a Hollywood production the very next year, the revered 1933 adaptation by director George Cukor (with Katharine Hepburn as Jo), a colorful 1949 remake (with June Allyson as Jo and Elizabeth Taylor as Amy) and a made-for-TV version in 1978 (with Meredith Baxter as Jo).Of the latter three - and all are worthwhile - the Cukor film has always seemed to be about as good a movie as a literary adaptation could become. And Hepburn was so perfectly in tune with her character, the outspoken, independent Jo March, that other interpretations seem pale in comparison.

That said, it's still impossible to deny the gentle power and overwhelming emotion attached to this latest version, brilliantly conceived by Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong ("My Brilliant Career," "Mrs. Soffel") - and perhaps it is high time a woman brought this story to the screen (with another woman, screenwriter Robin Swicord). What's more, Winona Ryder makes the character of Jo her own with a solid performance that takes her from girlhood to womanhood.

The story is familiar, of course, as it follows the four March sisters - Jo, Meg (Trini Alvarado), Amy (played as a child by Kirsten Dunst and as an adult by Samantha Mathis) and Beth (Claire Danes) - as they grow up in Concord, Mass., during the Civil War. Susan Sarandon, wonderfully cast as their mother Marmee, raises the girls virtually on her own, while the father is off fulfilling his military duty.

The episodic storyline has the family pulling together through thick and thin, with comedy and tragedy nicely balanced, along with superlative production values that successfully transport the audience back in time to the period.

"Little Women" is ensemble in nature, but Jo is unquestionably the central character. Spirited, talented and at odds with an unfair world in which men are encouraged to be passionate and creative and women are placed in domestic pigeon holes, Jo receives the quiet nudging from her mother that she needs to help her find the courage to follow her heart.

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The talent is for writing, of course, and at first Jo comes up with miniplays patterned after the classics, which she and her sisters act out. Then she settles into a series of fictional horror-thrillers, a popular genre that seems to come to her a bit too easily. Later, after changing her pen name from Josephine to Joseph, she will find a newspaper willing to print some of those stories - but it won't be until she leaves home and tentatively steps into the treacherous waters of the New York publishing world. And it will be longer still before she unlocks her true writing talent, with help from a kindly German professor (Gabriel Byrne).

Jo is the film's center, but there are wonderful moments for all the sisters, and for Sarandon, who shines in her part, playing Marmee more strongly as an early feminist than has been emphasized in other film versions. Also good are Christian Bale as next-door neighbor Laurie, Eric Stoltz as the pompous John Brooke and Mary Wickes, funny and surprisingly warm as grumpy old Aunt March.

"Little Women," with its themes of deep family (sisterly) love and faith intact, should easily please fans of the book - but any audience will be more than satisfied with this cinematic gem.

The film is rated PG, but could easily be a G; there is really nothing offensive here.

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