The film focuses on the March sisters: beautiful Meg (Trini Alvarado), tempestuous Jo (Winona Ryder), tender Beth (Claire Danes), and romantic Amy (Kirsten Dunst), who are growing up in Concord, Massachusetts during and after the American Civil War. With their father away fighting in the war, the girls struggle with major and minor problems under the guidance of their strong-willed mother, affectionately called Marmee (Susan Sarandon). As a means of escaping some of their problems, the sisters revel in performing in romantic plays written by Jo in their attic theater.
Living next door to the family is wealthy Mr. Laurence (John Neville), whose grandson Theodore, nicknamed "Laurie" (Christian Bale), moves in with him and becomes a close friend of the March family, particularly Jo. Mr. Laurence becomes a mentor for Beth, whose exquisite piano-playing reminds him of his deceased young daughter, and Meg falls in love with Laurie's tutor John Brooke (Eric Stoltz).
Mr. March is wounded in the war and Marmee is called away to nurse him. While Marmee is away, Beth contracts scarlet fever from a neighbor's infant. Awaiting Marmee's return, Meg and Jo send Amy away to live in safety with their Aunt March. Prior to Beth's illness, Jo had been Aunt March's companion for several years, and while she was unhappy with her position she tolerated it in the hope her aunt one day would take her to Europe. When Beth's condition worsens, Marmee is summoned home and nurses her to recovery just in time for Christmas. Mr. Laurence gives his daughter's piano to Beth, Meg accepts John Brooke's proposal and Mr. March surprises his family by returning home from the war.
Four years pass; Meg (now twenty) and John marry, and Beth's health is deteriorating steadily. Laurie graduates from college, proposes to Jo (now nineteen) and asks her to go to London with him, but realizing she thinks of him more as a older brother than a lover, she refuses his offer. Jo later deals with the added disappointment that Aunt March has decided to take Amy, who is now eighteen (and now played by Samantha Mathis), with her to Europe instead of her. Crushed, Jo departs for New York City to pursue her dream of writing and experiencing life. There she meets Friedrich Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne), a German professor who challenges and stimulates her intellectually, introduces her to opera and philosophy, and encourages her to write better stories than the lurid Victorian melodramas she has penned so far.
In Europe, Amy is reunited with Laurie. She is disappointed to find he has become dissolute and irresponsible and scolds him for pursuing her merely to become part of the March family. In return, he bitterly rebukes her for courting one of his wealthy college friends in order to marry into money. He leaves Amy a letter asking her to wait for him while he works in London for his grandfather and makes himself worthy of her.
Jo is summoned home to see seventeen-year-old Beth, who finally dies of the lingering effects of scarlet fever that have plagued her for the past four years. A saddened Jo retreats to the comfort of the attic and begins to write her life story. Upon its completion, she sends it to Professor Bhaer. Meanwhile, Meg gives birth to fraternal twins Demi and Daisy.
A letter from Amy informs the family that Aunt March is too ill to travel, so Amy must remain in Europe with her. In London, Laurie receives a letter from Jo in which she informs him of Beth's death and mentions Amy is in Vevey, unable to come home. Laurie immediately travels to be at Amy's side. They finally return to the March home as husband and wife, much to Jo's surprise and eventual delight.
Aunt March dies and she leaves Jo her house, which she decides to convert into a school. Professor Bhaer arrives with the printed galley proofs of her manuscript, but when he mistakenly believes Jo has married Laurie he departs to catch a train to the West, where he is to become a teacher. Jo runs after him and explains the misunderstanding. When she begs him not to leave, he proposes marriage and she happily accepts.Winona Ryder as Josephine "Jo" March, an ambitious young woman who longs to become a successful author.
Gabriel Byrne as Friedrich Bhaer: An older professor who falls in love with Jo while he works as a tutor in New York and eventually marries her.
Trini Alvarado as Margaret "Meg" March: the oldest March sister. She marries Laurie's tutor, John Brooke, and gives birth to fraternal twins, a boy, Demijohn, and a girl, Margaret, called Daisy at home "so as to not have two Megs". She is named after her mother.
Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis as Amy March: The youngest March child and quick-witted daughter. Instead of the brown hair and brown or green eyes of her three older sisters, she has golden curls and blue eyes. She later marries Laurie and becomes a successful painter. Amy was the only character played by two different actresses; Dunst portrayed her at twelve years old in the first half of the movie, Mathis as a young woman in the second half of the movie.
Claire Danes as Elizabeth "Beth" March: the third March daughter and the pianist of the family. She is shy, good, sweet, kindly and loyal. At the young age of fourteen, she contracted scarlet fever which weakened her heart and resulted in her death four years later at the age of eighteen.
Christian Bale as Theodore "Laurie" Laurence: The young neighbor who became Jo's best friend in their youth. Later he tried but failed to convince her to marry him.
Eric Stoltz as John Brooke: Laurie's tutor and Meg's eventual husband.
John Neville as Mr. James Laurence: Laurie's grandfather and a kind neighbor of the Marches.
Mary Wickes as Aunt March: The only March family member who still had a lot of money. Upon her death, her estate is left to adult Jo who transforms it into a school for boys.
Susan Sarandon as Margaret "Marmee" March: The mother of the March daughters and loving wife of Mr. March.
Matthew Walker as Mr. March: The father of the four March daughters, Marmee's loving husband and longtime devoted partner.
Florence Paterson as Hannah: The loyal housekeeper of the March family since Meg was born. The girls' think of her more as a good friend than a servant.
Janne Mortil as Sally Moffat: Meg's one and only good friend, who is quite rich and prosperous.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times awarded the film 3½ stars, calling it "a surprisingly sharp and intelligent telling of Louisa May Alcott's famous story, and not the soft-edged children's movie it might appear." He added, "[It] grew on me. At first, I was grumpy, thinking it was going to be too sweet and devout. Gradually, I saw that Gillian Armstrong . . . was taking it seriously. And then I began to appreciate the ensemble acting, with the five actresses creating the warmth and familiarity of a real family."
Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle called the film "meticulously crafted and warmly acted" and observed it "is one of the rare Hollywood studio films that invites your attention, slowly and elegantly, rather than propelling your interest with effects and easy manipulation."
Little Women has a strong 90% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 30 reviews with an average rating of 7.5/10 and with the consensus: "Thanks to a powerhouse lineup of talented actresses, Gillian Armstrong's take on Louisa May Alcott's Little Women proves that a timeless story can succeed no matter how many times it's told."
The film opened on 1,503 screens in the US and Canada on December 21, 1994. It grossed $5,303,288 and ranked #6 at the box office on its opening weekend and eventually earned $50,083,616. Against its budget of $18 million, the film was a success.
The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Winona Ryder, Best Costume Design for Colleen Atwood (who was nominated for the BAFTA Award in the same category), and Best Original Score for composer Thomas Newman, who won the BMI Film Music Award.
Winona Ryder was named Best Actress by the Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards. Kirsten Dunst won the Young Artist Award, and the Boston Society of Film Critics honored her for her performance in both Little Women and Interview with the Vampire.
Robin Swicord was nominated for the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay but lost to Eric Roth for Forrest Gump.
The film had its initial North America video release on VHS on June 20, 1995, followed by its initial digital release on DVD on April 25, 2000.