Wednesday May 10, 1995
"Magic has to be believed to be real," an understanding father tells his daughter in "A Little Princess," a philosophy this enchanting fantasy has taken as its own. Unlike the creators of far too many children's films, those responsible here have taken their story's events exactly as seriously as they expect their small audience to, with appealing results.
Adapted from a novel by the venerable Frances Hodgson Burnett, who also wrote "Little Lord Fauntleroy" and "The Secret Garden," "Princess" is dependent on its fairy-tale elements, but the filmmakers have smartly seen to it that these are not overdone. In fact, the straightforward way the picture treats its magical and sentimental sequences enhances its tangible sense of wonder.
While this well-mannered "Little Princess" is always nice, it's not immediately apparent if that's all it's going to be. For as initially presented, little Sara Crewe is reminiscent of the creatures in Agnieszka Holland's precious version of "The Secret Garden," a film so well-scrubbed and respectful it crossed over the border into cloying.
Sara (10-year-old newcomer Liesel Matthews) is discovered in Simla, India, in 1914, frolicking on a riverbank and recounting tales of monsters and heroes from the Sanskrit epic the Ramayana. Here she first hears, from her Indian nanny, the film's not exactly gender-blind philosophy that all women and girls are princesses, each in their own way.
Reality, however, soon asserts itself: Sara's father, the wealthy but first-name-deprived Captain Crewe (Liam Cunningham), has to leave India to fight the good fight in the Great War, and Sara must be taken to Miss Minchin's School for Girls in New York, the alma mater of her dear departed mother.
Though the haughty, overbearing Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron) and her flighty, rotund sister Amelia (Rusty Schwimmer) are in awe of Sara's wealth, they are less enamored of the girl's disregard for rules, her tendency to be a freer spirit than this rigid place allows.
There is a potential pitfall in this setup, because paragons of childhood tend to be great bores with too much of the wrong kind of princess about them. Saving Sara from this trap is the innate feistiness of actress Matthews and the genuineness of her character's desire to be a friend to the friendless, especially the downtrodden servant girl Becky (well done by Vanessa Lee Chester). Soon almost the whole school is sneaking into Sara's room every night to hear her spirited versions of the tales she heard in India.
Then, once again, a reversal of fortune occurs, and this time it is a shocking one. A lawyer arrives at the school and the news he brings of her father's disappearance in battle and the confiscation of his wealth unhinges Sara's life. Overnight she is turned from a cosseted, indulged pet into an overworked drudge, forced to scrub floors, move to the attic with Becky and exist on bitter gruel.
It is this devastating plot twist that keeps "A Little Princess" honest and lifts it above the ordinary. For one thing, Sara as a chastened orphan, her spirit crushed, plays much more effectively on our sympathies than Sara as the oblivious heiress, and Matthews' acting seems to improve as her character's situation worsens.
This change of life is especially touching because what the Richard LaGravenese and Elizabeth Chandler script does best is delineate what is essentially a father-daughter love story. Though the screenwriters have taken a number of understandable liberties with the original novel, including successfully softening and Hollywoodizing the book's ending, they have also, in tender scenes like the Captain's goodby to Sara at Miss Minchin's, enhanced and amplified that key emotional connection.
As always when a film more than fulfills expectations, many factors contributed to the success of "A Little Princess," notably the acting of Eleanor Bron, expert at giving Miss Minchin just a twinge of humanity, and Errol Sitahal, who brings appropriate majesty to Ram Dass, the Asp-like Indian who happens to live next door. The soaring music by Patrick Doyle (who scored both of Kenneth Branagh's Shakespearean films) sets the emotional tone, and production designer Bo Welch has beautifully constructed Sara's fantasy India and the ominous oversized plushness of Miss Minchin's.
Finally, a great deal of credit has to go to Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, whose only previous feature was "Love in the Time of Hysteria." Though Cuaron has had other domestic projects fall through (he was at one time slated to direct "The Perez Family"), this became his Hollywood debut and it is an impressive one.
Working with "Like Water for Chocolate" cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuaron perfectly understands how a combination of simplicity and restraint help to create a sense of wonder on screen, how a gust of snow blowing open a window can take your breath away more than the most elaborate of machine-made special effects. Under his sure, quiet direction, "A Little Princess" casts the type of spell most family films can only dream about.
A Little Princess, 1995. G. A Mark Johnson/Baltimore Pictures production, released by Warner Bros. Director Alfonso Cuaron. Producer Mark Johnson. Executive producers Alan C. Blomquist, Amy Ephron. Screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Elizabeth Chandler, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Editor Steven Weisberg. Costumes Judianna Makovsky. Music Patrick Doyle. Production design Bo Welch. Art director Tom Duffield. Set designers John Dexter, Larry Hubbs. Set decorator Cheryl Carasik. Sound designer Richard Beggs. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. Eleanor Bron as Miss Minchin. Liam Cunningham as Captain Crewe/Prince Rama. Liesel Matthews as Sara Crewe. Rusty Schwimmer as Amelia Minchin. Arthur Malet as Charles Randolph. Vanessa Lee as Chester Becky. Errol Sitahal as Ram Dass.