Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 7/9/04 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.
Based on the children's story by Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess is the story of an imaginative little girl who is sent to live at an all-girls school in NYC while her father goes to war during World War I. When her father has gone missing, she is forced to endure the cruelty of her headmistress as she turns to her imagination for comfort. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron and screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Elizabeth Chandler, the film is a different take on the story that harkens more towards imaginative scenes and fantasy. Starring Liesel Matthes, Vanessa Lee Chester, Liam Cunningham, Eleanor Bron, Rusty Schwimmer, Arthur Malet, and a special appearance from Vincent Schiavelli. A Little Princess is a majestic and charming film from Alfonso Cuaron.
It's 1914 India as a 10-year old girl named Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews) is telling a story about a prince who saves a princess from a multi-headed monster to an Indian boy. When her widowed father (Liam Cunningham) reveals he has to report to the British army for World War I, the two sail to New York City to live at an all-girls school her mother used to go. At their arrival, they meet the school's headmistress Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron) where Sara learns to live by Minchin's strict rules and wear green dresses like the other students. With her father gone, Sara tries to get accustomed to Minchin's rules while dealing with the snotty Lavinia (Taylor Fry). Yet, Sara was able to befriend the insecure Ermengarde (Heather DeLoach), Minchin's sister/assistant Amelia (Rusty Schwimmer), the young black child-maid Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester) where she wins over Ermengarde and Becky with her imaginative stories. Though she misses her father who couldn't attend parents day, she was able to have a birthday party with her classmates until a mysterious man named Mr. Barrow (Vincent Schiavelli) reveals to Miss Minchin that Sara's father is missing and is reportedly dead.
With her father's assets gone and won't be able to pay for Sara's tuition, Sara is forced to work as a maid like Becky while living in the attic. With Miss Minchin also taking away Sara's locket, that carries the picture of her mother, Sara endures the cruelty of servitude as she clings to her magical imagination with help from her neighbor's servant Ram Dass (Errol Sitahal) whose master Charles Randolph (Arthur Malet) is dealing with his son's disappearance in the war. Despite the cruelty she endures from Miss Minchin, Sara is able to maintain her imagination as she tells stories to Becky as Ermengarde and other classmates secretly visits to hear stories. While also maintaining her compassion towards others as well as telling stories, she learns that a mysterious man has entered the Randolph home blindfolded as he has no idea who he is. With Ermengarde and other classmates deciding to help Sara retrieve her locket, Sara also helps out Amelia out to escape from her domineering sister to be with the milkman. Still, Miss Minchin's suspicions are risen as she tries to punish Sara only for Sara to defy her again as she decides to escape for all the little princesses in the school.
While the screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Elizabeth Chandler is formulaic to older audiences, it isn't for children as it does more what is expected in a story that is about imagination and bringing hope to others in the darkest circumstances. While the character development is fine-tuned, the only minor flaw in character development is of Miss Minchin where the writers don't do enough to understand why she is so cruel to children as there could be more to her. Then again, kids don't care if its one dimensional as long as she makes an eerie presence. If the screenplay works fairly well in its story, carrying it to its imagination is director Alfonso Cuaron. Cuaron's vast, eye-wielding vision definitely brings magic and life in its story sequences of Sara's stories while the looks of 1914 New York City and India are captured gloriously with his wide-camera shots and slow movements that really encompasses the grandeur of its beauty.
Helping Cuaron with that look is his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki whose Oscar-nominated vision really brings life to the story's imaginative tone. One of the best cinematographers in the industry, Lubezki brings in all these sorts of wild, kaleidoscopic colors in the film's exotic Indian scenes while capturing a sea, greenish color to New York City while bringing a lot of tone and subtlety to make the film feel like a children's story that helps encompass the imagination of its viewers. Helping Lubezki and Cuaron in capturing their imaginative vision is production designer Robert W. Welch III, set designer Cheryl Carasik, and art director Thomas A. Duffield in bringing an intimate, restrained look to Minchin's house and 1914s NYC while adding more color in the exotic story sequences and Ram Dass' Indian look that is filled with shiny colors in which Welch and Carasik received Oscar nods for art direction.
Judianna Makovsky really shines in the film's costume designs with its detailed, greenish look of the girls' dresses while helming a tight, black-colored look to Minchin and a colorful, shiny look to the Ram Dass and characters of the Indian stories that Sara tells. Film composer Patrick Doyle help brings a wonderful, sweeping film score that is filled with lush, grand orchestral arrangements and dreamy textures that is enchanting in its tone and innocence.
The film's casting couldn't have been more perfect while Eleanor Bron's role of Miss Minchin was underwritten, she is excellent in her strict, uptight performance that serves as a perfect nemesis for young little girls. Rusty Schwimmer doesn't have much to do in her small role as Minchin's sister but shines when she expresses some freedom with the young girls while she brings depth in a scene with Liesel Matthews. Errol Sitahal brings a wonderful presence, as Ram Dass while Arthur Malet is sympathetic brilliant as Charles Randolph with Vincent Schiavelli in a great cameo as Mr. Burrows. Liam Cunningham is the film's best adult performance as Sara's father whose spirit is carried for his love for his daughter while he plays another role as the prince in Sara's stories.
The heart of the film truly belongs to the younger cast where all the actors perform very naturally and without trying to overact or do anything. Taylor Fry is wonderful as the snotty Lavinia while Heather DeLoach is lovely as Ermengarde whose character develops from a bullied girl to a girl with flowing confidence. Vanessa Lee Chester is the film's best supporting performance as the young black servant Becky where she doesn't speak for a while but once she's given new shoes, she shines as a girl who believes in magic and a world where she isn't oppressed. The film's most radiant performance is Liesel Matthews as Sara with her free-spirit attitude and natural approach to acting where we believe she's playing a child and not acting like one.
A Little Princess is a rich and spectacular film from Alfonso Cuaron. Featuring a superb ensemble cast and dazzling visual work that includes Emmanuel Lubezki's rapturous cinematography. The film is truly a divine and engaging visual feast backed by a story that does more than what is expected for a family film. Notably as it revolves around a young girl trying to bring hope to other people through imagination where the real world doesn't have to be so grim. In the end, A Little Princess is an extraordinary film from Alfonso Cuaron.
Alfonso Cuaron Films: Solo Con Tu Pareja - Great Expectations (1998 film) - Y Tu Mama Tambien - Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban - Children of Men - Gravity - Roma (2018 film) - The Auteurs #11: Alfonso Cuaron
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