A LITTLE PRINCESS is at least the third film version of the book
of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Shirley Temple was in the
1939 version. You may have seen the last film version of one of
Burnett's books a couple of years ago - the delightful THE SECRET
GARDEN. She also wrote LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY and other kids classics.
A LITTLE PRINCESS tells a magical, tragic, and dark and foreboding
tale. Sara Crewe, played by first time movie actress Liesel Matthews,
is a girl of I guess about the age of 10. She lives a wonderful life
in India. She spends her days creating delightful stories of a
princess and an Indian god. Her idyllic life is shattered when her
father (Liam Cunningham) must go off to World War I.
Her father takes her to New York to stay in a marvelous private
room at the best boarding school for young girls he can find. It is
run by the evil Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron from last year's BLACK
BEAUTY). She exudes charm to the parents so she can siphon off their
money. Her pupils are treated like prisoners, and she provides them
with a mediocre education while probably skimming off large profits for
Sara with her story telling ability and her inherent likableness,
is an instant hit with almost all of the schoolgirls. Among her many
friends is Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester) who is the only girl servant at
the school and the only black. Sara's life soon takes a dramatic turn
for the worse and that sets up the drama in the movie as well as the
completely predictable ending.
There is much to admire in this children's movie. The acting is
pretty good. Liesel Matthews gives a straight forward and simple
rendition of Sara. She never tries to manipulate your emotions; she
just smiles a lot and delivers her lines. I am not sure if she has
much talent or not, but she is sweet. Vanessa Lee Chester was given a
small part and her acting consisted mainly of a lot nice smiling.
The best performance in the movie is that of the actress playing
the villain, Eleanor Bron - an easy person to hate. Liam Cunningham
gives a lifeless performance as the father. I wished the director
(Alfonso Cuaron) had kicked him in the pants a few times to get a
little more energy out of him or even better had cast someone stronger.
The Indian manservant who almost never spoke and whose name I did not
catch was extremely effective. Powerful eyes.
The real reason to see the show is for the magic of the images.
The set decoration by Robert W. Welch gave us golden leaves for the
hopeful scenes and gray snow for the sad. The street scenes of New
York were wonderful and reminiscent of THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. The
cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, who should have won an Academy
Award for LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, was worthy of Renoir. The radiant
colors in the story within a story set in India were incredible. The
best scene in the show had to be the one where the white snow burst
into Sara's room like swirling white confetti and she danced in it in
What was wrong with the show, other than the actors being too low
key and relying too much on smiles to carry the day, was the script by
Elizabeth Chandler and Richard LaGravenese. For some reason, they felt
obliged to add overly dark, sinister, and scary parts to a movie that
had a fine evil villain already in Eleanor Bron.
A movie that gets and flaunts his G rating needs not to be one
that can so easily and so needlessly scare small children. Even
Jeffrey, my 6 year old, got scared by it. Be warned, therefore, than
this is truly a PG show regardless of the advertising and of the
official MPAA rating of G.
Let me give a few examples. First, why do you have people dying
in war with bombs bursting everywhere in a G show? Why have scene
after scene of realistic battle carnage? Why have a frightening
monster with numerous heads that lash out biting at the screen as if
they are about to eat every kid in the theater? Finally, why must we
have a realistic scene of a child about to die in a horrible accident?
If all of these plot devices are necessary, make them less explicit,
insist on getting a PG rating and warn parents. I recently saw a
harmless show, THE ENGLISHMAN WHO WENT UP A HILL, BUT CAME DOWN A
MOUNTAIN, which got a PG rating for a couple of damns - which most kids
hear everyday. Very few children have ever seen real battle carnage.
End of diatribe. The movie IS good nevertheless.
A LITTLE PRINCESS runs a well edited (Steve Weisberg) 1:40. My
son gave it a thumb sideways. He hated the war scene he said, and
although he claimed to have liked parts of the show, he was unable,
when pressed, to name a single one. I suspect kids 8 and older may
like the movie more, and I suspect girls may be more fond of it than
boys. I enjoyed the picture and am awarding it ** 1/2. I recommend it
to you with the above caveats about the violence.
Copyright © 1995 Steve Rhodes