Just because a movie is aimed at children, it doesn't have to insult grown-ups.
The truly great children's films – The Wizard of Oz, Snow White, Mary Poppins, even The Black Stallion – are entertainments we can return to as adults and discover that they're as wonderful as ever, even if we find ourselves appreciating them for different reasons than we did the first time around.
To the short list of children's classics we should add A Little Princess (1995), a lovely bit of Edwardian Pollyanna-ism overflowing with cliché and coincidence but which creates such a marvelous, magical world that our intellectual objections simply give up and slink away.
Based on a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), it's the story of Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews), the motherless child of a British officer in India. Hers is a life of beauty and leisure; her papa, Col. Crewe (Liam Cunningham), assures her that every little girl, regardless of her position in life, is a princess and deserves to be treated as such.
With the outbreak of World War I, however, the Colonel is called to the front and, seeking a safe place for his daughter, settles upon Miss Minchin's School for Young Ladies in New York City. Overseen by the pinched and formidable Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron, who seems to glide leglessly down a staircase to greet the newcomers), this is a chilly abode where spontaneity and feelings are suppressed in favor of perpetually "proper" behavior.
Sara is a ray of sunshine in this austere environment, quietly defying Miss Minchin's killjoy attitude and gathering the other girls in her room for late-night storytelling sessions. Miss Minchin is an avowed enemy of make-believe and imagination. But Sara is a born raconteur who creates an ongoing epic filled with exotic characters drawn from Indian mythology (and re-created on the screen with the help of some effective computer graphics).
The kindly Sara presses her luck even further by befriending the hard-working and underappreciated servant, Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester), who lives a life of toil and deprivation in the school's dank, drafty attic. Even a serving girl is a princess in Sara's book.
Sara avoids Miss Minchin's wrath largely because Papa's monthly checks help keep the school solvent. But when word arrives that the Colonel is missing and presumed dead, and that there will be no more money, the wrathful headmistress confiscates all of Sara's possessions, banishes her to the attic with Becky and puts her to work scrubbing floors and doing laundry.
This reversal of fortune leads to much suffering, certainly, but also to an unexpected epiphany. Little kindnesses have big payoffs here; the world may be cruel, but we must not allow it to make us cruel as well.
Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, here making his English language debut (he went on to helm one of the Harry Potter movies), proves himself a master of understatement and subversive humor (for a film that dishes up plenty of sobs, it's also remarkably amusing), and his sense of timing is impeccable. He and editor Steven Weisberg unerringly know how long to let the camera linger – they neither cut away too abruptly nor overstay a moment's welcome. Each scene emerges as a model of clarity.
Moreover, Cuaron is a first-class fantasist. His 1917 New York is half gritty reality and half fairy tale kingdom; yet in a scene set in the trenches of war-torn France he manages to evoke the devastation of combat without ever getting too gruesomely specific.
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Screenwriters Richard LaGravenese and Elizabeth Chandler have done some tinkering with the particulars of Burnett's novel; by setting the film in New York rather than London, for example, they have been able to cast a black actress as Becky the serving girl, thus further emphasizing Sara's egalitarian and colorblind outlook (and generating countless lumps-in-the-throat in the process). But they also have expertly captured the book's spirit, that blend of wonder, loneliness and redemption that's kept families reading it for 90 years.
The performances, particularly from the delightfully unself-conscious Miss Matthews and a large cast of terrific pre-pubescent actresses, are uniformly excellent. And Bron's headmistress is a constant source of delight – scary, hilarious and a bit heartbreaking. Villainess or no, Bron makes this sarcastic spinster totally human, nursing hurts of her own.
A Little Princess came out at a time when movies about little girls weren’t faring very well (movies about boys, particularly obnoxious boys, were and are a license to print money). In fact, Warner Bros., feeling the picture didn’t’ get the audience it reserved, re-released it a year later with a new ad campaign – only to find audiences still kept away.
But A Little Princess deserves to be seen by all of us – youngster and grown-up alike.
Other films in the series “Kids’ Classics”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- September 1: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Not Rated
- September 8: The Black Stallion (1979) Rated G
- September 15: Mary Poppins (1964) Not Rated
- September 22: A Little Princess (1995) Rated G
- September 29: The Secret Garden (1993) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.