All Girls Are Princesses: Alfonso Cuarón's A Little Princess (1995)
Alfonso Cuaron’s filmography is fascinatingly impressive. He’s taken us on a trip into space, on road trips, into the world of witchcraft and wizardry, and soon we will get to know what it was like to be a part of his family growing up. It doesn’t come as a surprise that in 1995 he dabbled in magic with the story of an imaginative little girl who has been bound to a life of service in an all-girls boarding school after receiving notice of her father’s death during World War I.
A Little Princess is not your ordinary princess fairy tale. It gets extremely dark before some sort of fresh air arrives. Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews) lives in India with her wealthy father, Captain Richard Crewe (Liam Cunningham). She is carefree and loves life while creating elaborate stories for her friends. Her father, unfortunately, must leave to serve with the British in World War I and when this happens, Sara is forced to attend an all-girls boarding school in New York. Sara has the largest suite, but that doesn’t dampen her optimistic, beautiful demeanor in the eyes of the other girls. She makes friends quickly but does ruffle some feathers with the school’s rebel.
The headmistress Ms. Minchin (Eleanor Bron) is an evil force to be reckoned with. She’s at the beck and call of Sara’s needs, in hopes of acquiring more monetary donations from her wealthy father. After receiving word that Captain Crewe has allegedly passed in war, a light switch flips and Ms. Minchin’s true self begins to shine. Ms. Minchin takes all of Sara’s regal belongings away and banishes her to the attic where another young girl named Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester) lives, making them perform daily chores for the school and other girls. With help from their mystical Indian neighbor across the street, their creative tales and imagination begin to come to life.
It’s a shame that its initial theatrical run wasn’t very successful. The marketing and promotional campaign Warner Brothers built for A Little Princess were weak. The film barely made back half of its budget. Cuaron, with the help of noted cinematographer and frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, creates pure magic. A Little Princess is a fanciful tale of a little girl striving to make the best of her circumstances. Sara is constantly disheartened by her headmistress who is trying to strip her of her innocence, but she knows that even though her words are hurtful to her, she will stand up for what she believes in and what is right.
Elaborate sets and costumes flood every scene, allowing the audience to become fully invested in the whimsical aspects of the film. Being adapted from a book, you can guess that certain points of the film will be outlandish, but that is what makes A Little Princess a fabulous tale. Lavish monsters and vibrant colors take you into the world of Sara’s fantasies and propel you back to your younger years when you would hear stories in school or from elders. There is a sense of anger watching these innocent girls trudge through their days having the evil headmistress looming over their every move and squashing their happiness at every turn. However, happiness will prevail and the heartwarming ending is enough to make viewers of all ages shed a tear or two.
It is refreshing to see that even in the ’90s, Cuaron was interested in telling female-centric stories. As Roger Ebert once said, “Imagination is a precious gift.” The message in A Little Princess is to hold onto that imagination and never let it go. Let your imagination flow and take you to worlds unknown. This film just goes to show that children’s movies do not have to be action packed all the time, they can also be quietly observed portraits of growing up, and A Little Princess is worthy of all its well-earned praise.