Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews) shares a life of wonder in exotic India with her devoted father (Liam Cunningham). A bright, imaginative child, Sara weaves spellbinding stories as easily as others breathe. She is captivated by the fable of Rama and Sita, from which she learns that every girl is a princess at heart. When the First World War draws Sara’s father into the military, Sara is sent to a New York boarding school run by the tyrannical Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron). Sara’s free-spirited cleverness puts Miss Minchin’s nose out of joint, but while she makes an enemy in snooty Lavinia (Taylor Fry), other girls adore her stories, and her kind heart beguiles servant girl Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester).
Then Sara’s father goes missing, presumed killed in action. Miss Minchin sells everything Sara owns and makes her a servant. She endures a life of toil and hardship, endless, backbreaking work by day, spending her nights in a cold, dusty attic. Yet, as a mysterious Indian gentleman (Errol Sitahal) observes, Sara clings to her dreams and her eyes remain open to the world around her. She continues helping others, learning what it truly means to be a princess, while fate weaves her one more, magic spell.
In the mid-nineties, Warner Bros. adapted a string of classic children’s books, of which Alfonso Cuarón’s dazzling masterwork is the jewel in their crown. As Little Sara soars into exotic flights of fancy, the film becomes a hymn to fantasy. Not as a means of escapism, but as a well of strength to nurture and fortify us in trying times. Too often we use the word “princess” as shorthand for spoiled, self-centred, Paris Hilton types. Cuarón and his screenwriters, Richard LaGravenese and Elizabeth Chandler, posit that grace, selflessness, generosity, resilience, tolerance and boundless kindness are the real values celebrated by that word. Values, the film claims, all little girls possess but sometimes lose sight of along the way. Throughout her fairytale childhood in India, everyone knows Sara is a princess, but in New York it is only after she feeds a starving child that someone recognises her as such. “For the princess”, says the grateful mother, handing Sara a flower, in one of several, heart-warming moments.
Yet the film avoids the mawkish mush of Walter Lang’s 1939 version, which even Shirley Temple couldn’t save. That movie had the temerity to rewrite the novel’s lyrical climax, working in a sudden, groan-inducing appearance from Queen Victoria! What could have been a very ordinary kids’ film, or a stodgy literary adaptation, instead established Cuarón as a visionary. His visual gifts translate Francis Hodgson Burnett’s marvellous story into cinematic poetry: the black balloon that hovers like a solitary, spectre of death; the old man grieving for his lost son; Sara’s scarf blowing along the wind like a magic carpet, leading her to fortune’s friend.
It’s not all magical visuals and tear-jerking tragedy. There is some great comedy, courtesy of Lottie (Kelsey Mulrooney) and her tantrums (“I swear that child has a pact with Satan to destroy me!” wails Amelia, Miss Minchin’s sister), Sara’s curse upon nasty Lavinia, and Amelia (Rusty Schwimmer) eloping with the milkman.
One of the handsomest productions of its decade, A Little Princess did not have a large budget. Even the Indian scenes were shot entirely on a studio backlot. The reoccurring fairytale of Rama and Sita is stylised and minimally staged, with a CG demon prince that recalls Ray Harryhausen’s classic monsters. Cuarón draws clever parallels between Sara’s journey and the Hindu fable by having Liam Cunningham double as blue-skinned Prince Rama. His production team conjure a dreamy atmosphere: luminous cinematography by genius Emmanuel Lubezki, sumptuous design by Bo Welch (The pair re-teamed for Welch’s directorial debut, the less beguiling Cat in the Hat (2004)), and a beautiful score from Patrick Doyle. When Doyle has a children’s choir sing snippets of William Blake (“Tiger, Tiger, burning bright.”) – the effect is as mesmerizing as Sara’s storytelling.
Best of all is wonderful Liesel Matthews, every inch the little princess. “I am a princess. All girls are… Even if they dress in rags, even if they aren’t pretty, or smart, or young. They’re still princesses. All of us.” Matthews brings astonishing conviction to this speech, a message that is pleasingly all-inclusive. Radiant in every scene, she reaches a magical highlight when she bows a wordless thank you to the Indian gentleman, before dancing in the snow. Even the song Matthews sings over this sequence conveys subtext (“Take my hand, kindle my heart.”). Aside from playing Harrison Ford’s daughter in Air Force One (1997) she has seldom worked since, concentrating on her college education. Matthews is an heiress, a member of the Pritzker family who founded the Hyatt hotel chain. She is apparently, the richest young adult in the USA. One sincerely hopes life imitates art and she sidesteps the pitfalls that befall so many privileged youngsters.
Sara’s goodness even reaches out to Lavinia. Their reconciliation marks the final triumph, and proves the central message is not mere hypocritical window dressing. Grace belongs to everyone. Like all great children’s movies, A Little Princess leaves you feeling like a kid on Christmas morning. You wouldn’t think an adaptation of a storybook for young girls would be one of its decade’s most visionary examples of pure cinema, but this truly is.