Little Princess, A (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

A "family movie" is often loosely defined as a motion picture that, aimed at children, is likely to bore parents to tears. Numerous examples leap to mind, most of them from Walt Disney Studios, a production company that holds the curious distinction of making animated features that are more mature than live-action ones. However, A Little Princess isn't from Disney, it's from Warner Brothers. Most importantly, it's not only suitable for consumption by those over age 10, it's actually enjoyable.

The film is based on the popular 1888 children's book Sara Crewe by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This is the third filmed version, following 1917's A Little Princess with Mary Pickford and 1939's, which featured Shirley Temple. While not as good as 1993's The Secret Garden (another movie based on a Hodgson story), this new version of A Little Princess can more than hold its own in a sea of overly-commercial attempts to grab children's hard-earned money. Unfortunately, since it actually takes the time to develop characters and a story while eschewing explosions, it's unlikely to garner much at the box office. Witness the performance of similar recent films if you doubt that.

The main character is Sara, played delightfully by newcomer Liesel Matthews. The motherless girl has grown up in India, a land where "the air is so hot you can taste it." In fact, the scenes there are filmed with warmth and color to emphasize the beauty as seen through Sara's eyes. The year is 1914, and World War One is in full swing. When Sara's father (played by Liam Cunningham), a British army captain, decides to rejoin his regiment, he deposits Sara in an exclusive girls' school in New York City. Run by the nasty Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron), this is a place that stifles creativity in favor of etiquette and strict rules. Sara is immediately unhappy there, but her fortunes go from bad to worse when her father is declared dead in Europe and all his assets are seized by the Indian government. Sara is left penniless and forced to work as a servant to earn her keep.

A Little Princess is an engaging tale about self-respect and the importance of imagination. In India, Sara is told that "all girls are princesses", and this is a lesson she clings to when forced to mop floors and serve meals. Even dressed in rags and living in a bare attic room, she is special -- and so are all the others around her, regardless of whether they're nice, snobbish, or bossy. Princess or pauper, there's no difference in Sara's eyes.

She also accepts magic. In her father's words, "Magic has to be believed -- that's the only way it's real." Her stories about Princess Sita and Prince Rama not only enchant her schoolmates, but they give Sara an escape route once her father has been declared dead. She uses fantasy as a tonic for her bleak reality without ever losing sight of what's happening around her. Together with her friend Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester), she ventures to amazing places without leaving her room.

To be sure, A Little Princess has a few missteps. For one thing, Miss Minchin could have been played with less villainy, but younger viewers will probably appreciate the one-dimensional nastiness. There are also a few moments of overt sweetness, but these are easily forgiven. Actually, there's very little this movie has to apologize for -- it's the rare kind of picture that can be enjoyed by viewers of eight, eighteen, and eighty.

Little Princess, A (United States, 1995)

Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 1995-05-19
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1