A Little Princess
directed by Alfonso Cuaron
starring Liesel Matthews, Eleanor Bron and Liam Cunningham
at the Sony Janus
With enough money, you can do anything. Warner Brothers, perhaps anxious to capture that Disney magic--at the box office--has poured its coffers into a shiny new child-charmer. "A Little Princess" proves that even a transparently moralizing, predictable story can look good if you spend enough money on it.
Based on the children's classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the movie seeks to illustrate the oh-so-charming platitude that "All girls are really princesses." We follow Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews), the daughter of a rich British officer, Captain Crewe (Liam Cunningham), as she leaves India for boarding school in New York. At first the school's headmistress, Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron) spares no expense to put Sara at ease, knowing she'll reap the rewards from Sara's rich father. But when Captain Crewe is reported missing in action and his property is confiscated by the British government, Miss Minchin morphs into Cruella DeVille, complete with a streak of white in her hair. She forces Sara to become a household drudge to work off the expenses she has incurred.
Sara, being the unaffected little darling that she is, makes friends with all the other students, charming them with her storytelling abilities. The story she tells, based on a tale from the Ramayana and brought to screen by computer technology, is the high point of the movie. Amazing special effects create a surreal landscape, studded with green thorns, where a blue-painted hero, Prince Rama, battles a multi-headed demon for his Asiatic Rapunzel. Told is segments, woven through the rest of the movie, the legend is paralleled to the separation of sara an her missing father. Prince Rama is even played by the same actor as Captain Crewe. Even the most venomous anti-Freudian has to ask: Electra complex?
The only girl who doesn't fall for Sara's Scheherazade routine is the jealous, obsessively hair-brushing Lavinia (Taylor Fry), whose machinations would fit right into "90210: The Elementary School Years," Sara meets Lavinia's jealousy with innocent incomprehension. Nor can she understand why the students why the students aren't allowed to talk to the Black servant girl, Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester). Sara promptly sets out to befriend Becky, despite the house taboo.
Many a kids' movie has met its downfall through cute but hopeless child actors. Luckily for "A Little Princess," incompetence is largely confined to the minor characters. Still, although Liesel Matthews is fairly good as Sara, she fails to maintain the delicate distinction between a girl that everyone falls in love with for her unaffected friendliness, and an ordinary Goody-Two-Shoes. Halfway through the movie, one simply gets tired of hearing her breathy voice and watching closeups of her preadolescent Molly Ringwaldesque lips, parted in sensitive confusion at the evils of the world.
Not all the blame can be pinned on the acting, however, Sometimes, the dialogue positively reeks of adult intervention. A few lines would never pass thorough any 10-year-old's lips, like, "Father dear, I'm so proud of you." Then there are the gaps in credibility. It's very interesting that Sara managed to spend her interesting that Sara managed to spend her formative years in British India without seeing poverty or encountering racial prejudice. Her utter naivete when encountering these things in New York is ridiculous.
Of course, the only India we are ever shown in the movie is the secluded resort-paradise jungle where Sara cavorts on the head of a sunken idol, under the gaze of her Indian nanny. Sara's memories of India are similarly one-dimensional, painting the rather confusing picture of a land where elephants and tigers lie side by side, inhaling the scents of Indian curries.
From the lush opening shots of India and the ship to America, seemingly suspended in the velvet night. "A Little Princess" is practically shot through the diamond lens of a platinum camera, on gold-rinsed film. This movie positively drips wealth. Even the wooden planks of the bare attic where Sara is thrust after her fall from grace are examined in lustrous detail by the camera's eye, and of course the opulence that surrounds her before her little bout with poverty is absolutely sumptuous. Reality is suspended as surely as if this were an animated feature.
Despite its failings, the movie slides elegantly along its predetermined path (the plot is predictable whether or not you're read the book) until the end, where the enthusiasm of its creators overflows into a million directions at once, giving us about 10 endings for the price of one.
While the din in the theater indicated that the smaller patrons were well pleased with the feature, larger people might be happier spending those two hours at the beach. After all, it is summer.