Sunday, 3 January 2010

A Little Princess is a little gem

a little princess
You might think this is an odd film for a bloke in his late thirties who's a horror and sci fi geek to love. But it isn’t. At heart I’m a big softy who also loves films and stories in general that can make an emotional connection – as long as the themes and ideas strike a chord. And they most certainly do in this film.

I hadn’t watched A Little Princess for a long time. But today I was looking through my DVD’s and for some reason it just leapt out at me. I’m glad it did. I remembered it as being a very good film but had forgotten just how beautiful it is both thematically and artistically. It was originally recommended to me not long after it first came out in cinemas back in 1996, but back them I didn’t bother, dismissing it as just another boring kids film. It took me a while to finally see it, catching up with it on TV one Christmas. And I was instantly captivated. In the hands of Oscar nominated Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón who made Y Tu Mamá También, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men, A Little Princess is a shining gem.

The story goes like this: It is 1914 and young Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews), an imaginative and kind-hearted girl, is brought from India to New York by Captain Crewe (Liam Cunningham), her British Army officer father. She is enrolled in the same private boarding school her mother attended as a child. Her father then departs for Europe to rejoin the British Army to fight in the trenches of the First World War. Sara quickly becomes popular with her schoolmates, capturing their imaginations with colourful, magical tales of India and of its gods and goddesses. But tragedy eventually intervenes, which leaves Sara destitute and at the mercy of the schools nasty headmistress, Miss Minchen (a truly hissable Eleanor Bron.) To cope with her grief and her new station in life, Sara becomes a close friend of the schools child servant Becky. Along with Becky, Sara escapes her horrible new life by going further in to her world of stories and fantasy.

A Little Princess is adapted from the classic 1904 novel of the same name written by Frances Hodgson Burnett who also wrote The Secret Garden. This film version from 1995 changes several elements of the original novel including moving the school from England to America, moving the time period forward to the outbreak of the First World War and reinventing the entire resolution of Sara’s story. I haven’t read the book but the story as told here works perfectly. Thematically this film also works perfectly, at least for me. The exploration of childhood and what it means to be constrained as a child by often stupid seeming rules that quash an exhuberant and vivid imagination, a gift to be treasured and one that most of us will eventually lose once we've grown up. To allow imagination to soar is a wonderful thing as is encouraging freedom of expression and creativity for its own sake. The ability to imagine, to dream, to wonder…it is fundamental to who we are. And sometimes, for some of us, it can be our only means of escape, a way to freedom.

And then there is the look and the design of this film. It is simply gorgeous with detailed and lavish sets that were built almost entirely on a studio back lot in Burbank, California. The cinematography by Cuarón’s regular DP Emmanuel Lubezki is sumptuous and elegant. For the Indian/fantasy scenes it is dreamily colourful while being suitably crisp and grim for the reality of the dirty streets and alleys of New York.

The cast is excellent with young Liesel Matthews imbuing Sara with an inner strength, warm hearted kindness and an open honesty that never lets you think of her as being remotely spoiled or silly. Eleanor Bron is wonderfully cold and cruel as Miss Minchen. You can sense in her a real sadness and bitterness that comes out as a kind of jealousy towards poor Sara. All the young actresses playing the girls in the school are great especially the little one who plays Lottie, the ‘possessed’ girl with the screaming fits. She made me laugh.

A Little Princess is a carefully crafted, beautifully rendered piece of work coming from a top-notch filmmaker. Like the best films of Pixar it is too good to just label as a children's film, it trancends that. It is a film that deserves a place on the shelf of every family and of every genuine film lover.


A Little Princess 1995 (Trailer) - MyVideo


  1. Love this film, although I haven't seen it in a while.

    It takes a light touch to make this kind of thing work, and even the masters don't quite nail it. Del Toro's Pans Layrinth, Zemekisis's Forrest Gump and the collective works of Terry Gilliam...all deal with similar themes but rarely deliver (for me) that personal connection to make it work emotionally as this does.

    I love the way Cuaron aligns colour with imagination. Patrick Doyle's score is understated, but soaring when it needs to be. And the scene where Sara, banished to the attic, dances in the snow as it poors through the window is as uplifting a scene as I've witnessed, perfectly summing up the themes in a single shot.

  2. Watch it again, mate. I was the same but it just kinda called to me from the back of my DVD shelf. And I'm bloody glad it did. Gorgeous film.