My introduction to the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Little Match Girl was through a picture book with beautiful illustrations by Rachel Isadora which I discovered in second grade. I was instantly endeared to the poor protagonist and enchanted by the wonders she experienced – though the ending left me in a state of shock. I didn’t know what to make of it. The story fell out of sight and out of mind until the Platinum Edition DVD of The Little Mermaid came out. Packaged with it was a new animated short from Disney retelling the Match Girl’s tale.
There’s an odd bit of animated symmetry this shares with The Little Mermaid: both mark the finale of a time-honored animation method. The Little Mermaid was the last film from Disney to use traditionally inked cels before switching over to the CAPS system. The Little Match Girl, meanwhile, was the final Disney product to use CAPS. While the artistry on display left me in awe each time, I rarely revisited this short on account of how it stayed true to the story. And since Andersen had a penchant for downer endings…you get the idea.
This short is brought to us by Don Hahn and Roger Allers, the producer and director of The Lion King respectively, and anyone who’s seen that movie can verify their ability to leave you a sobbing wreck. The Little Match Girl was supposed to be a part of a Fantasia continuation that was tragically canceled; as such, the story is told solely through the visuals and set to the emotional strains of Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No.2 in D Minor (my fellow theater nerds will also recognize this as the music behind Kismet’s “And This is My Beloved”).
So, are you ready to start off your holidays as a tear-streaked mess on the floor?
The story is transplanted from New Year’s Eve in Copenhagen to Christmas Eve in Saint Petersburg, but it still follows the same beats. An impoverished little girl tries to sell matchsticks out on the snowy streets. Despite her enthusiasm and adorableness, she’s ignored at every turn.
Another thing I’ll give to the setting change, moving it up to pre-Revolution Russia perfectly illustrates the stark disparity between the rich and poor. It gives you one more reason to root for the girl and helps drive in the story’s message, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The short omits the abusive father the Girl fears coming home to empty-handed; regardless, it’s clear she has nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Come nighttime she huddles in an alley and tries in vain to keep herself warm. Moved to desperation, she lights one of her matches and basks in its small but alluring glow. Then something unusual happens: the light of the match transforms a trash bin into a piping hot stove. The Girl bathes herself in its warmth, but all too soon she’s whisked back to the alley – the match has gone out. Still freezing, the girl lights another. As she holds it up to her hand, it melts the wall in front of her and reveals a sumptuous feast. Before she can have a bite, she’s left in the lurch with another burnt-out matchstick.
She lights a third and a sleigh pulled by three horses appears to whisk her away to the countryside. The Girl arrives at the home of her beloved grandmother. Just as the two are about to embrace, the match goes out again. At this point, she just says “screw it” and lights all the matches at once, picking up right where she left off with her granny.
The lights of their Christmas tree turn to snowflakes falling against the bleak night sky and onto the Little Match Girl’s still frame. The grandmother steps into the alley, wakes up the overjoyed child, and carries her away in her arms.
Mufasa’s sudden death was a brutal sledgehammer. The Little Match Girl’s death is dealt with a feather touch that feels like a sledgehammer. It’s also kinda effed up when you realize that all these beautiful whimsical moments of holiday magic that we watched are really the hallucinations of a dying child.
Considering how Disney sanitized Hans Christian Andersen in the past with The Little Mermaid, you’d think they’d try to do the same with The Little Match Girl – and you’d be right. Executives cobbled together no less than three alternative endings that concluded the short on a happier note, but Allers stood his ground. And you know what? I’m completely on his side. Good on him for sticking with the script and not selling out for fear of traumatizing the younguns. It’s bleak yet bittersweet and masterfully done.
What I am against, however, is the moral that people tend to come away with.
When Andersen wrote this story, he did it to call attention to how the poor and abused suffer when neglected by those who have the power to help them; not unlike Charles Dickens’ reasons for writing A Christmas Carol, as a matter of fact. But like with the many iterations of that story, people rarely take its lesson to heart, focusing only on the holiday imagery and saying “Awww, she’s gone to heaven, that’s so sweet” and going on their way without considering how to help real people who are in the same situation as her or questioning the systems that put them there in the first place. Terry Pratchett did an excellent take-down of this simplistic view in his yuletide masterpiece Hogfather. A quick rundown of the plot: in a world where belief can bring characters and mythical creatures to life, Death has to take up the role of The Hogfather (aka Santa Claus) after supernatural forces put a hit out on the jolly old man. At one point during his midnight deliveries, he finds the Match Girl dying and his assistant Alfred explains the “heartwarming” notion behind her story:
You see, people hear about it and they say “Well we may be as poor as a disabled banana and can only afford to eat mud and boots, but see how much better off we are than the poor Little Match Girl!” That makes ’em grateful and happy for what they have got!
To which Death, on this one night where he can give to the world instead of only taking away from it, says:
NO. I KNOW WHAT THE SPIRIT OF HOGSWATCH IS, ALBERT. THE HOGFATHER GIVES PRESENTS. THERE IS NO BETTER PRESENT THAN A FUTURE.
And like that, he restores the Girl’s life and orders the Night’s Watch to feed and look after her (also Albert pelts snowballs at the angels who were going to spirit her off to Heaven for good measure). If it were any other author it would seem fanficcy, but Pratchett was a master of turning tropes on their head to make you think about why and how they’ve endured for so long. He, like Andersen and Dickens before him, used his talents to show how people need to come together to save each other instead of assuming the other half will be fine on their own; even Roger Allers went on record saying he wants this short to reawaken people’s sympathy towards children in need.
I know all this makes it seem like I’m looking down on The Little Match Girl, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. People, watch this short. Admire the beauty of the animation and music, get lost in the holiday atmosphere, shed those tears for the titular character. Nobody’s telling you not to, certainly not me. But when it’s done, instead of moving on to the next heartwarming holiday feature, donate a coat or food or sanitary supplies; volunteer an hour at a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, or disabled center. Those small actions will make a difference, one vastly greater and happier than a handful of matches in a back alley ever could.
Thank you for reading! Sorry this review’s lighter on the humor than usual, but I promise the rest of the month won’t be so heavy. I’d like to give a shout-out to my generous patrons Amelia Jones and TylerFG for their support, and to welcome my newest patron Sam Flemming aka South Jersey Sam! Thanks for joining us Sam! Patreon supporters can get such fun perks as sneak peeks of reviews, extra votes, movie requests, and more!
The next Faerie Tale Theatre Review will be posted on the 6th as usual, and you can expect the rest of the Christmas Shelf Reviews to be posted on every Monday leading up to Christmas.
Also, I meant it when I talked about giving for the holidays and beyond. Here are a few good places to consider, and be sure to namedrop any you know in the comments as well: