Chosen by Ashley S., Manager
“Springing from the world of gloomy privilege that shaped Frances Hodgson Burnett’s stories (“Little Lord Fauntleroy,” “The Secret Garden”), the new film version of A LITTLE PRINCESS achieves something irresistible: a bright, beautiful and enchantingly childlike vision. Shaking off the solemnity that smothers many a well-meaning, high-minded family film, this one revels in an exuberant sense of play, drawing its audience into the wittily heightened reality of a fairy tale. The material, like the title, is a tad precious, but the finished film is much too spirited and pretty for that to matter. A LITTLE PRINCESS also arrives without benefit of big names or a whopping Hollywood pedigree. That makes it even more of an unself-conscious delight.
“As directed by Alfonso Cuaron, an energetic Mexican-born film maker of prodigious talent, A LITTLE PRINCESS takes enough liberties to re-invent rather than embalm Miss Burnett’s assiduously beloved story. (Reviewing the more cloying 1939 film version starring Shirley Temple, one critic described Miss Burnett, with her penchant for sensitive, well-born children, as ‘a lady with coronets on the brain.’)
“There’s a hint of magical realism to the spring and fluidity of Mr. Cuaron’s storytelling, and it breathes unexpected new life into this fable. Set by Miss Hodgson in England, in ‘a big, dull, brick house, exactly like all the others in its row,’ the tale now unfolds in a fanciful, expressive and handsome set that’s almost entirely green. This building is the New York girls’ school to which Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews) is relegated after an exotic childhood spent in India. And it has been ingeniously rendered to inspire all the awe and terror a child in such altered circumstances might feel.
“In this film’s harmonious world, anything from a bird to a balloon to the weather can conspire to intensify the characters’ thoughts. Mr. Cuaron makes that clear from the opening sequence, a brilliantly colorful staging of an Indian myth (among the film’s clever amplifications of the original material) that sets the prevailing tone of inviting artificiality. One of the film’s loveliest moments finds Sara and her father (Liam Cunningham) dancing on the deck of an ocean liner as they sail to America. The patent phoniness of the waves, the boat and the moonlight enhance the film’s faith in the power of imagination.
“Left in America to be educated while her father fights in World War I, Sara finds herself under the wing of Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron), the schoolmistress whose fondness for her students is directly linked to their parents’ financial standing. Since Sara is rich enough to earn the nickname of the title (which is also an endearment from her widowed father), she is very well-treated, at least while the money holds out.
“Admired by schoolmates who wear matching middy dresses and hair ribbons, Sara is given ostentatiously grand quarters that befit her initial status. In keeping with the story’s spirit of noblesse oblige, she finds time to befriend younger girls and charm them with her storytelling skills. She also makes friends with Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester), the school’s scullery maid, who becomes her greatest ally once Sara experiences a severe reversal of fortune. Like Mary Lennox of ‘The Secret Garden,’ Sara is both patrician and bereft, with only the magic of her own daydreams to sustain her.
“A LITTLE PRINCESS is now a more joyous, operatic story than it was on the page (or on the stage, where Miss Burnett’s works have been enduringly popular). It’s also missing the pet rat that was meant to be a lovable character, thus offering another example of the film makers’ acumen. As written by Richard LaGravenese (whose whimsy fits more easily here than it did in “The Fisher King”) and Elizabeth Chandler, A LITTLE PRINCESS even injects some elements of contemporary reality into a tale that could well have remained unrelievedly quaint. The film crosses lines of race and class as well as those of time and space.
“From the huge head of an Indian deity, used as a place where stories are told and children play, to the agile way a tear drips from Sara’s eye to a letter read by her father in the rain, A LITTLE PRINCESS has been conceived, staged and edited with special grace. Less an actors’ film than a series of elaborate tableaux, it has a visual eloquence that extends well beyond the limits of its story. To see Sara whirling ecstatically in her attic room on a snowy night, exulting in the feelings summoned by an evocative sight in a nearby window, is to know just how stirringly lovely a children’s film can be.” -Janet Maslin, New York Times
Part of the series “Classic IFC Center”