Saturday Matinee #87: "The Little Matchgirl" (June 5, 2006) - published September 1, 2012
by Albert Gutierrez
Saturdays and summer vacations are often the best times to have movie marathons. I rarely have time to sit down and have a back-to-back-to-back marathon of films, so I'll usually - wait. That marathon is over! This week, we'll be taking a look at "The Little Matchgirl," a short cartoon directed by Roger Allers (co-director of The Lion King). It was intended to be part of a series of shorts in Fantasia 2006, a never-produced sequel to Fantasia and Fantasia 2000. In addition, "The Little Matchgirl" was Disney's fifth time adapting a work from well-known Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. During Walt's time, two versions of "The Ugly Duckling" were produced for the Silly Symphonies series. 1989 saw the animated hit The Little Mermaid. Ten years later, Fantasia 2000 featured the short "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" among its offerings. Next year will see another of Disney's latest Andersen adaptations: Frozen, based on "The Snow Queen."
In a pre-revolutionary Russia, a poor little matchgirl approaches various people throughout the town, hoping to sell some matches. She joyfully swings off a lamppost, hoping her energetic state will convince a prospective buyer. Unfortunately, no one stops to buy any matches. Night begins to fall, and the matchgirl knows she has to return home. On the way home, she stops in an alleyway. Freezing, she lights one match. She imagines it turning into a furnace, warming her up immediately. However, the match goes out. She lights another, now seeing a holiday feast spread before her. As she grabs a turkey leg, the light goes out once more. Some snow falls into her match box, and she pulls the matches out before they get sogged.
She lights another match, and sees horse-drawn sleigh approach her. She climbs in, with a warm blanket ready to wrap around her, as the horses ride away, taking her into the woods to Grandmother's house. She goes to hug her grandmother, but the light extinguishes once again. In a desperate attempt to see her grandmother, the little matchgirl lights all her remaining matches. This brings her back to the house and grandmother, where she's led into a room bearing a Christmas tree. As the little girl lights candles on the tree, they fade into snowflakes. We return to the alleyway. The little girl lies still in the snow, but now her grandmother returns to take her home. As the grandmother carries her into the light, the little matchgirl's body remains.
"The Little Matchgirl" is a rarity among Andersen's tales, as he was not known for writing stories with social commentary in mind. Andersen wrote "The Little Matchgirl" in response to the plights of poor children everywhere, forced to work or beg in order to help support their family. Ron Barbagallo of the Animation Art Conservation notes that the story was published nine years after Dickens' Oliver Twist. Since Andersen and Dickens were colleagues and good friends, it is probable that Andersen was influenced to write "The Little Matchgirl" due to Oliver Twist. Other inspirations for Andersen's tale also includes an illustration by Johan Thomas Lundbye, and a Grimm fairy tale, "The Star Money."
Disney's version of "The Little Matchgirl" uses pantomime and music, since it was intended for a third Fantasia film that never came to be. The filmmakers wanted to adapt "The Little Matchgirl," and had to then select the proper music. Ultimately, they chose "Nocturne from String Quartet No. 2 in D Major" by Alexander Borodin. In addition to selecting music by the Russian composer, they also set the film in pre-revolutionary Russia. Director Roger Allers explained that decision by pointing out that the actual Andersen tale never fully specifies its location - though many would assume Denmark. In addition, Allers loved Russian architecture, and felt that its time period would better convey the differences between the haves and have-nots.
In addition to "The Little Matchgirl," three other shorts were in development: "Lorenzo," "One by One," and the revived "Destino." Those four shorts were the backbone of the proposed Fantasia 2006, which was ultimately shelved in 2004. The other three shorts, already completed, were released in film festivals or theatres between 2003 and 2004. "The Little Matchgirl," however, was still in production, due largely to its "downtime" status. Allers related in an interview how its production was based on "using people just when they weren�t busy on other projects, for only as long as they were free" (Animated Views). While that seems quite an odd way of doing things, such a practice partially harkened back to the old days at Walt Disney Studios. Animators worked on their assigned projects, naturally, but also could contribute to others at their own discretion.
In fact, one of the Walt's ways of encouraging such contributions was his "$5 a gag" program during development of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Anyone in the studio - regardless which department you worked in - could submit proposals for a gag to be used in either the cartoon shorts or a feature film. For every gag used, that person would receive a $5 bonus. I can't remember which Disney biography I read, but one of them recounts how a lot of great gags were submitted by a gardener on the lot. Even though he collected many $5 bills for his gags, he stayed a gardener. One animator noted that such a decision would seem odd, but this guy was "a really great gardener."
"The Little Matchgirl" premiered at the Annecy Film Festival in June 2006, and later appeared as an extra on The Little Mermaid: Platinum Edition DVD, released in October of that year. When Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 were being prepared for Blu-Ray release in 2010, one of its advertised features was Fantasia World, which would have collected the four Fantasia 2006 shorts ("Destino," "Lorenzo," "One By One," and "The Little Matchgirl") together with additional animated materials. Presumably, this would have included "Clair de Lune," an animated short prepared for a second Fantasia in the 1940's, before being re-purposed as "Blue Bayou" for 1946's Make Mine Music. Unfortunately, when the Fantasia films were released to Blu-Ray, Fantasia World was not included.