22 April 2019
The Little Match Girl is a short film by Walt Disney Animation Studios that depicts a homeless, orphan girl in Russia during the 1900’s attempting to sell matches to townspeople who are apathetic towards her. The young girl is saddened by a family Christmas shopping together as she is all alone and by an unidentified person lighting the street lamps as she is freezing. After her unsuccessful day of selling, she sits in a snowy alley and lights matches for warmth. The girl experiences hallucinations of being with her grandmother celebrating Christmas with a large, extravagant tree with presents underneath and a large feast. The end of the short film shows the young girl, dead from hypothermia, being carried to heaven by her grandmother. This short film does not have any dialogue, instead utilizing animation and music to convey the story of the orphaned girl. The short film is shown as part of a series of other short films in Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection. Although the music production supervisor, Tom MacDougall, introduces the film as a focus on music as the star of a film, The Little Match Girl also highlights the hardships homeless and orphaned children face as well as how society ignores the problems.
Russia’s battle with homeless and orphaned children during the 1900’s stemmed from the engagement in multiple wars that ravaged the country and world. World War 1 occurred from 1914-1918, with Russia joining the Allies – Great Britain, France, Italy, Romania, Japan, and the United States – against the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire – resulting in over 16 million deaths of soldiers and civilians (History 1). Not only was Russia engaged in World War 1, but turmoil on home soil caused the Russian Revolution and Russian Civil War in 1917. The Russian Revolution divided Russia into 2 parties and lasted until 1923. The Russian Revolution ended with the creation of the Soviet Union, a communist state. Between the two wars, many children were left orphaned and/or homeless, resulting in the estimation by the Soviet government of 600,000 homeless children for which they could only provide shelter for less than half of these children (Warwick 1). With nowhere else to go, the estimated 4.5 – 7 million homeless children of the Soviet Union (Khvostunova 7) – formerly Russia – turned the streets into their home with many sleeping in abandoned buildings or in alleys.
The Little Match Girl utilizes various forms of composition, music, and imagery to depict the story of a homeless orphan and create sympathy and sadness for the orphan amongst the audience. The target audience are children and parents, as Disney is the producer of children’s movies and shows. Parents and children are the target audience for this issue because it is more likely to deeply impact them, potentially influencing them to help make a change. Parents and adults are susceptible to the emotional appeals of the short film due to the author’s knowledge that they have a maternal or paternal instinct to protect children. Children may not understand the short film depending on their age; however, some children will be able to understand the orphan girl’s situation and empathize with her. Furthermore, some children may have friends whom are experiencing homelessness or the loss of a parent(s) in which the emotional appeals become even more powerful for that child.
The film utilizes classical music – Alexander Borodin’s Nocturne (the third moment) of String Quartet No. 2 in D Major – to showcase various emotions throughout the film. The beginning of the film opens to music of moderate pace and volume as the film introduces the young orphan and her struggles in selling matches and being ignored or dismissed by the townspeople. At the 1 minute mark, the music becomes more joyful and light as a happy family of 4 is depicted getting into a horse-drawn carriage and the little girl looks on in longing. Next, the music becomes slow and soft around the 2 minute mark as the girl is sitting in the alley to emphasize the sadness for the girl’s hunger and cold. Suddenly, the music becomes faster and louder as the girl lights matches and begins her visions of being near the warm fire, riding in a horse-drawn carriage, entering a large house, and seeing a large feast for her to eat. At the 5 minute mark, the music is still warm but slows in tempo as the girl and her grandmother are reunited in her vision and enjoy a large, elaborately decorated Christmas tree with loads of presents underneath. The music embodies the joy the girl has to embrace her grandmother as well as embodying the pleasure of the audience of the two being reunited. However, the music becomes somber 30 seconds after this heart-warming section as the grandmother finds the dead body of the young girl. At the 6 minute mark, the music is soft and pleasant as the grandmother carries her grandchild with her into heaven to represent the peace the young girl experiences of not having to struggle anymore. The changes in the tempo and dynamics in the music create different emotions within the audience. Slower, softer sections of the music are used to create feelings of empathy for the girl, whereas louder, brighter sections of the music are used to create feelings of delight for the girl.
Along with music, the film utilizes color, and lack thereof, to arouse different feelings and emotions within the audience. Most of the film is in black, grey, and white which represents the sadness and struggle of being a homeless orphan. The somber tones of the black, white, and grey are intentional, as the audience is compelled to feel glum with many viewers unaware of the impact the lack of color has on their emotional state. Sources of joy are shown in full color. The store the family getting into the horse-drawn carriage exits from is in color, which can be seen in the window of the store. This is because the store has decorations, presents, and is warm which brings joy to the little girl. Also, light throughout the film is depicted in color as it represents warmth and in the girl’s visions the light from the matches introduces all the things that bring fulfillment to the girl. The girl’s vision is shown in color as she feels nourished, fulfilled, and loved in the presence of her grandmother and with food and warm shelter available. Finally, the young orphan and her grandmother are shown in color as they go off to heaven together because they are both happy and at peace. The young girl’s death is sad; however, the film depicts her in color in death because she is able to be happier in death and in heaven than she was in her life. This mix of color and grey-scale is an emotional punch to the gut: the viewer is left feeling bittersweet as the sadness of her life and the joy of her journey to heaven with her grandmother are felt all at once.
The Little Match Girl is a strong message to Disney fans that among our own joy and life, we should not forget about those less fortunate than us. This film calls to attention the reality of homelessness and being an orphan as a child, including the hardships these children endure and the stigmas society has about homeless children that interfere with our ability to show compassion, empathy, and assist them. Through music and visual composition, The Little Match Girl highlights a severe problem in a way that is understandable and appropriate for children and adults. This issue is not just a fake problem in a film, but something millions of children experience around the world each year and it is imperative that we wake up and take action to save young lives from the hardships and suffering seen in The Little Match Girl.
History.com Editors. “World War I”. A&E Television Networks, Oct. 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/world-war-i-history.
Khvostunova, Olga. “Russia’s Invisible Children: The Unrelieved Plight Against Russia’s Homeless Youth”. Institute of Modern Russia, 2012. https://imrussia.org/en/nation/245-besprizorniki.
Warwick Digital Collections. “The Increasing Number of Homeless Children Causes Great Anxiety to the Soviet Government.” Warwick Digital Collections, 1926. https://wdc.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/russian/id/3463.
Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y14KDS5U0Iw.