A Little Princess (1995)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in No Boys Allowed | 0 comments


Disclaimer: This feel-good movie with a teary ending includes racism and child slave labor.

Before Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Y Tu Mama Tambien, Mexico-born director Alfonso Cuaron set his sights on this reworked and polished adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book (he also penned The Secret Garden). The film is technically a remake of a 1939 version starring Shirley Temple, but this far superior installment is a breathtaking mixture of melodrama and fantasy as never seen before.

This coming-of-age flick follows pre-teen LittlePrincess1Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews), who lives in India prior to World War I. When her father (Liam Cunningham) is called to duty in England, she travels to a New York seminary led by overbearing headmistress Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron), who some later refer to as Demon Minchinhead and who resembles a mixture of Frankenstein’s bride and Cruella De Vil. The school “trains” girls to be proper, racist prudes of the bourgeoisie, who must learn to speak French, Latin, and insensitivity fluently.

As Sara wanders around confusingly, her eyes lock on Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester), a shy young black girl who works at the seminary essentially as a slave. Not knowing that empathy and manners are improper, Sara thanks Becky at breakfast, tutors a poor student, and spices up the regular readings of the classics by infusing her own imagination into the plot. Quite simply, she rebels against the system for the greater good and we get the impression that, in another dozen years, she could be Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted.

When Minchin almost gleefully LittlePrincess3tells Sara that her father has perished in battle, and the British government seized his money, Sara is forced to stay at the school as a servant. From here, the film becomes eerily similar to Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, only not as dark, scary, or depressing. In order to better cope with her situation, Sara invents a fantasy world with a prince, princess, and 10-headed demon. The dark and domineering house towers over the innocent and vulnerable girls, much like Minchin, but Sara enlightens their spirits with her detailed imagination.

“It’s time you learned that real life has nothing to do with your fantasy games,” Minchin scolds her. “It’s a cruel, nasty world and it’s our duty to make the best of it. Not to indulge in ridiculous dreams, but to be productive and useful.”

Cuaron’s unique eye and camera lens expose everything from Sara’s point of view, which often captures little details such as a tear, a balloon, or a hand movement. He isolates the image for a brief yet enchanted emotional moment, forcing us to feel as Sara does, not merely present her unfortunate situation. Meanwhile, he presents the fantasies with incredible and colorful beauty, as if ripped straight from an illustrated children’s book. It earned Oscar nominations for art direction and cinematography for these reasons, I suspect.

A Little Princess is as funny as it is sad, and as much whimsical fantasy as typical costume melodrama. Plus, the ending will have you on the edge of your seat and in tears within seconds. It’s a “royal” treat.

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