A Little Princess - Movie Review (2024)

A Little Princess is, I guess, significant in that it ushered hot new Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón into Hollywood filmmaking out of nowhere, in 1995 (Sólo con tu pareja, his only previous feature, had screened at Toronto and made a splash, but never received U.S. distribution until 2006). But to me it is far more significant in that it was the first time that Emmanuel Lubezki lost a Best Cinematography Oscar, and it's one of only two times that's happened that it can be even plausibly argued that justice was served (John Toll won for Braveheart).* The film still looks like everything good and holy and right, you understand; the Lubezki of big ideas and dramatically unsound execution who shot Sólo con tu pareja - I have seen nothing else that he shot prior to 1995 - is replaced as though by a fairy changeling with the Lubezki who can crap out delicate shadows and dreamscape sunbeams for Terrence Malick as easily as you or I could take an out-of-focus, mis-framed selfie. I do not know what A Little Princess without Lubezki would be like, but I can guarantee that I don't want it, any more than I want a version The Tree of Life without the cinematographer's psychologically indicative natural lighting and shallow focus.

But there will be time enough to praise Lubezki later on, and I'd really hate to bury the important part; aye, even more important than being drop-dead gorgeous. There are many gorgeous films. What sets A Little Princess apart isn't that it's gorgeous, but that it's one of the very best children's movies of the past quarter-century, during which time that genre has become especially endangered by a noxious cloud of fart jokes and pop culture parody. A brilliant year for children's movies, '95 was, seeing the release of Babe and Toy Story as well, though it's worth pointing out that A Little Princess, uniquely among the three, is centered on the person of a child, and largely takes place within the world as it is seen and understood by children. It takes this mission with uncompromising gravity, and I think you'd have to go all the way back to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial before you hit a movie that was so unyieldingly told through an entirely child-oriented aesthetic, even in the scenes where no children are present.

The main child of the film is one Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews), around ten years old in 1914, when her father (Liam Cunningham) joins the British Army to fight the good fight and, in the process, must leave behind his land in India for the moment. As he heads off to fight in the blood-soaked mud of Europe, he leaves Sara behind at the girls' school in New York where her late mother was taught, in the one completely unnecessary shift out of many largely invisible changes screenwriters Richard LaGravenese and Elizabeth Chandler make to Frances Hodgson Burnett's screenplay, which more sensibly set the action in London (and during the Boer War, a change that seems much more appropriate for several reasons, beginning with the "so, you wanna teach your kids all about the Boer War?" one).

At Miss Minchin's Seminary for Girls, Sara immediately gets on the bad side of the thoroughly unpleasant Miss Minchin the Elder (Eleanor Bron, unimprovably mixing icy cruelty with a softer, family-friendly lack of fangs), who smiles her insincere smile and treats the girl with saccharine pleasantness on account of Captain Crewe's considerable reservoir of money. The one primary point of conflict between the two lies in Sara's love of storytelling, gathering all the girls around her at night to tell snippets of the Ramayana and thoroughly offending Miss Minchin's starchy belief that young girls of proper society should only be exposed to bland stories that will teach them useful facts about daily life, not messy fantasies of monsters and god-warriors.

The situation breaks when Captain Crewe is mistakenly reported dead, his considerable assets seized on the spot by the British government. Just like that, Sara's only remaining value to Miss Minchin is as a vehicle for demonstrating her exhaustive sense of charity, which includes dumping the girl in a bare attic room next to the school's other lost soul, African-American servant girl Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester), and threatening to throw the girl out on the street the very instant that she opens her mouth about the fantastic nonsense that has been such a constant source of delight to all the school's other inhabitants, except for the jealous bully Lavinia (Taylor Fry).

I am told that this story takes most of its cues from the 1939 adaptation of the novel starring Shirley Temple, which I have not seen, though it doesn't take much imagination to guess what this material might play like as a Temple vehicle, and I am thoroughly overjoyed to say that the Cuarón film is not that. There's no way to completely exorcise corny sentimentality from material like this, especially with a second half as lustfully attached to melodramatic contrivances involving amnesia and conveniently-situated neighbors, but with Cuarón guiding Matthews to a performance that isn't really "cute" as such, and even has just a tinge of shrill stubbornness that can become just marginally annoying, this film's Sara has texture and solidity that a more unthinking embrace of the film's "every girl is a princess" message would have lost track of; as a result, that same exact message feels earned instead of trite, particularly when Matthews's invocation of it during a climactic rant feels more like a desperate girl trying to cling to something true and meaningful, instead of an adorable child offering up a life lesson to a cartoonishly grumpy old grown-up. Not every moment of child acting lands: frequently, Matthews allows giant-eyed breathiness to stand in for sincerity, and she's very much the best of young cast. But often enough, and always at the right moments, the director and the actor find a way to evoke enthusiasm and passion in a way that reads honestly, and we get utterly wonderful moments of emotional purity like the scene where Sara (not yet a pariah) offers up to one of the other girls a parable about how mothers go to heaven to become angels.

Having thus avoided the most obvious trap of just being preciously glib, A Little Princess ends up being a surprisingly rich and mature exploration of how the act of storytelling can be used as both a means of self-expression and a tool for survival; it is about considering one's own life as an act of narrative in a manner suggestive of Neil Gaiman (whose epic treatise on the subject, The Sandman, was in the last year of its 75-issue run at this time), though in a much friendlier and less esoteric register. In order to comprehend her frequently miserable experience, Sara is impelled to cast her own existence in literary terms, and to use the knowledge of what a storybook character would do to inform what she herself does in "reality". Thus we arrive at a film celebrating ingenuity and self-reliance while opening itself up to a meta-reading: as Sara, thinking of herself as a real person, looks to fiction for guidance and insight, so the film's ideal audience (certainly young, probably female) is invited to look to the fictional Sara for the same reasons.

Complex and wonderful stuff, and Cuarón and a terrific team of collaborators brought it all to life in profoundly inviting way, making a thoroughly fictitious 1914 (you can almost see the soundstage walls) that feels like the perfect place for a nice, never-too-dangerous bedtime story to take place. Production designer Bo Welch and costume designer Judianna Makovsky contribute an obvious backdrop of fairytale-realist period trappings done up in the director's chosen palette of varying greens (he noted, astutely, that it's the most emotionally variable color: comforting, natural, wild, nauseous, sterile, all as needed, and all found somewhere in the film's palette), and the hair and make-up team responsible for making Miss Minchin and her sister Amelia (Rusty Schwimmer) look like comic book echoes of each other, with the same little Bride of Frankenstein hair streak and all, deserves all the praise we can shovel their way for creating a pair of antagonists who set off the vaguely surreal settings just so.

Lubezki himself is limited mostly to glossing over all this with a patina of golden-green lighting that gives it all a slightly aged, otherworldly feel; the freewheeling camera movements of his very best work with Cuarón is found only in a smattering of tracking shots (though one - a lateral track along the dinner table where all the girls are gathered - is a perfect little gesture of scene-setting that unites the characters invisibly but firmly), and the whole thing is very much the work of a great talent doing things that any great talent could have. That's not quite as true of Cuarón's direction; if every random great director could do this kind of work imbuing the lives of children with gravity without wearily solemnizing them, there wouldn't be such a dearth of truly masterful children's cinema, and A Little Princess might not seem like such a singular achievement. Might. The fact remains, despite a cluster of odd adaptation choices and clumsy moments of acting, this is a hugely rewarding fable for young people and their attendant grown-ups, and while "a great family filmmaker" is a phrase used by absolutely no-one to describe the creator of Y tu mamá también, that doesn't mean it doesn't apply.

A Little Princess - Movie Review (2024)


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