Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Little Princess (1995)

“I am a princess. All girls are. Even if they live in tiny old attics. Even if they dress is rags. Even if they aren’t pretty or smart or young. They’re still princesses. All of us. Didn’t you father ever tell you that? Didn’t he?”
-Sara Crewe 
Title: A Little Princess
Genre: Drama
Year: 1995
Rated: PG

Liesel Matthews as Sara Crewe
Eleanor Bron as Miss Minchin
Liam Cunningham as Captain Crewe
Vanessa Lee Chester as Becky

Plot: A wealthy little girl is forced into servitude at her boarding school after she is left destitute by her father who is missing and presumed dead during World War I.

Tagline: Every girl everywhere is a princess.

First Viewing: Probably a rental, some time in the mid-90’s
Added to The List: 2004 (Junior year of high school)

A Little Princess is everything you’d ever want in a mid-90’s film purposefully created for pre-pubescent girls. If you were a child of the 90’s as I was, you’ve probably seen this movie countless times. And how could you not? It has all the necessary elements:

Touching father-daughter storyline?

Check. Evil, hatchet faced matron villainess?

Check. Interracial friendship? Gorgeous costumes? The word princess generously sprinkled throughout the dialogue?

Check. Check. Double check.

I mean not to question the integrity of A Little Princess as a story. I mean to question it as a creation of studio executives looking for “another Secret Garden.” And what could be better than that other novel about a girl by the same author? Frances Hodgson Burnett is, indeed, the author of both children’s classics The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. Both of Warner Brother’s treatments make My List. And today, my lucky reader, I will discuss the former.

I have to state, here and now, that I didn’t really “grow up” with this version. I saw it a few times. Mostly at sleepovers. I, myself, owned the 1939 Shirley Temple version, The Little Princess. At my young age, I don’t recall which I preferred. Since the Shirley one was the one I had, I watched it when I needed that triumph over adversity story. But after entering high school, I bought this version and watched them back to back and was totally blown away.

As much of a film fan I am, I usually care for modern movies versus “classics.” I suppose it may be a character flaw. I think I’m simply a product of my generation. But I digress…the 1995 version of A Little Princess is superior to the 1939 version in every single God damn way. The acting, the music, the sets, the costumes, the dialogue…EVERYTHING is better. This film was even nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography. (It lost both to Restoration and Braveheart, respectively).

Still, I can’t lie. A Little Princess is most definitely a children’s story. Sara has a rivalry with another rich (but snotty) girl named Lavinia. She tutors the school dunce, Ermengarde. And she befriends the black servant girl, Becky. Roughly the first half of the film is spent showing Sara adjusting to life at boarding school and her polite head-butting with Miss Minchin. (More on her later). Yet, A Little Princess is still relatable to an adult audience. The movie is mature and runs deeper than the average viewer would expect.

First of all, A Little Princess never “talks down” to its audience. It shows the harsh realities of life in the early 20th century for orphans and other unfortunates. After Sara is “orphaned” she is forced to become a servant at the boarding school. From here on out, Sara’s pampered life falls to the wayside and she becomes a servant like Becky and must live in the attic. The exciting Indian legends she told her classmates become mere fantasies as she falls into despair and accepts her life of drudgery.

One of the most heart wrenching scenes takes place when Sara is mistaken for a beggar and given some money. Sara chooses to indulge herself and buys an iced croissant. She is about to take bite when she notices a woman with two young daughters and a baby peddling useless yellow roses. Patron after patron passes by their dirty, sallow faces. Sara takes pity on the family, realizing she doesn’t have it nearly as bad. The children accept the food and the mother gives Sara a flower saying, “For the princess.”

I realize this scene may be a little too much for some viewers. It is melodramatic. But in a way, it’s honest. Along with Sara, we as an audience realize that Sara’s plight isn’t half of what it could be. If Miss Minchin had decided to turn her out, who knows what could have happened to Sara? Would she be selling flowers on the street? Or something else? Of course, with this being a family film, this possibility is never mentioned but left for the speculation for those old enough to foresee it.

See what I mean about A Little Princess being deeper than it leads on?

With all my praising, I have to admit that this movie isn’t perfect. In fact it has one glaring fault. Okay, maybe “glaring” is a little strong. Maybe flickering. Yes, flickering. An annoying flickering. Like the performance of Eleanor Bron as Miss Minchin.

I’ll just come out and say it: it’s too over the top. In a movie full of inexperienced child actors, performances will never be all they can be. (This does not apply to Liesel Matthews who is, rightly so, the strongest child actor). But when it comes to the adult roles, you expect…maturity? This something that is missing from Eleanor Bron’s performance, surely.

It seems like this portrayal of Miss Minchin is caught somewhere in between the comical nastiness of the Wicked Witch of the West and the unspoken evil of Lady Tremaine from Disney’s Cinderella. There is so much untapped evil in her character. And still, Eleanor Bron chooses to act like a spiteful teenage girl instead of a bitter, tightly wound spinster like in the 1939 version.

One interesting scene concerning Miss Minchin is after Sara’s “I am a princess” speech. At the end she demands to know if Mr. Minchin ever told her she was princess. Miss Minchin avoids the question and leaves Sara’s attic room. Outside the door, she allows herself to weep and then angrily wipes away her tear. One can only speculate what this tear means. Perhaps it’s the reason for Miss Minchin’s immaturity. But then there’s Amelia, Miss Minchin’s sister. She seemed well adjusted enough. She even runs off with the milk man and lives happily ever after. Could Amelia have been the favorite child in the Minchin household? Burning questions all...

Speaking of a happily ever afters, in this film and the 1939 version, both Saras are reunited with their fathers and saved from their hellish position. From what I read on Wikipedia, in the book, Sara’s father actually dies and stays dead. One of Captain Crewe’s business partners ends up adopting Sara. I have to admit I like the movie ending much, much more. I’m not what you’d call a Daddy’s girl, but even I cry when Sara is screaming for her father to remember her. (He has amnesia due to mustard gas). This is one of the only movies to make me cry without it being over a romantic subplot. (I also cry at the flower people part).

After writing this blog, I have decided to read the book to see how much, if anything, can be found about Miss Minchin. And how many of the quotes are accurate. And what's left in and out. I should probably read all of the books on which my favorite movies are based. I'm very much looking forward to watching The Secret Garden so I can compare and contrast them to my heart's desire.

Favorite Screencap
Earlier in the film, Sara tells and Indian legend of a man who draws a circle in the sand for his wife to stay safe in. After Sara learns of her father's death, she draws a circle on the floor of her attic room and sleeps inside it.

Next Film: Hook


Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness, this certainly was the film from my childhood that really touched a nerve with me at the end. How could anyone help but cry towards the end, just before Sara's father is getting his memory back?

Also everything you write about Bron is spot on.

MissRandom said...

You are right, this version is much better than the other! I don't particularly agree with what you said about Eleanor Bron's performance...I actually thought she was more of a Miss Minchin than the 1939 one.
The "Pappa!" scene has always left me crying too :)

And if you want to find out about Miss Minchin's childhood and get inside her head, read the sequel to A Little Princess, Wishing for Tomorrow.