A Little Princess
directed by Alfonso Cuarn
(Warner Brothers, 1995)

One of the more interesting articles on video store shelves these days is the remake of Shirley Temple's 1939 color opus The Little Princess.

That's partly because '90s filmmakers had location and color options available to them that didn't exist in 1939, and partly because the name's been changed to A Little Princess, no doubt to reinforce the idea that you don't have to be Shirley Temple to be a princess.

Plot-wise, however, the new Princess remains much the same.

Handsome English soldier Captain Crewe (Liam Cunningham) must leave his posh post in colonial India, where he protects the natives from themselves, to fight for the Empire closer to home. On his way, he drops off his preteen daughter Sara (Liesel Matthews) at Miss Minchin's equally posh Seminary for Girls, the alma mater of Crewe's late wife and apparent hangout for most of the world's chandeliers.

As is customary in Victorian-era schools, Miss Minchin's is all charm and grace on the outside, but inside, things are strictly un-Minchin-able.

Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron) makes the Wicked Witch of the West look like Mother Theresa, and it seems the only way she knows how to build poise is by filling her pupils with poison.

Despite all this, Sara soon bonds with her classmates -- not surprising, given how sticky everyone is -- and befriends an amazingly articulate servant girl named Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester). Then, just when it seems Sara has solved everyone's problems, tragedy strikes.

Sara's father turns up missing -- a linguistic absurdity but a dramatic necessity. Orphaned and penniless, Sara is sent to the loft to live and work with Becky.

There's enough implausibility in A Little Princess to sink a hot air balloon, but images prevail where plot and dialogue fail -- most notably in the scene where a snowstorm bursts into Sara's loft, launching her into an impromptu dance.

Just as importantly, the film never loses sight of its theme -- the need for imagination -- and it anchors the theme deep within Sara's character. It's Sara's imaginative fairy tales that first draw her classmates to her, and which sustain her during the long hard months she spends in Miss Minchin's attic.

A Little Princess is hardly what I'd call perfect family entertainment. Miss Minchin is as two-dimensional a villain as I've ever seen, and Bron plays her part with all the subtlety of a professional wrestler.

Much of the implausible plot hangs on the presence of a mysterious Indian, whose reason for being, or at least being where he is, is never made clear. And the film's slick surface makes it look at times like The Babysitter's Club visits Dante's Inferno.

Still, when Sara's fancy takes flight, or when her friends rush to her rescue, A Little Princess can be a whole lot of fun, especially if, like me, you're fortunate enough to have a little princess of your own to share it with.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

Buy A Little Princess from Amazon.com.

Buy The Little Princess from Amazon.com.