An astonishing work of studio artifice, “A Little Princess” is that rarest of creations, a children’s film that plays equally well to kids and adults. A companion piece to Warners’ outstanding 1993 “The Secret Garden” by virtue of its origins in a book by the same author, Frances Hodgson Burnett, the new film is even better, an exquisite, perfectly played serious fantasy that movingly stresses the importance of magic and the imagination in the scheme of life. A classic the moment it hits the screen, this should delight audiences of all persuasions through the summer and, in the long run, for generations to come. In the short term, Warner Bros., which has just moved the release date up to May 10 , will have to mobilize quickly to establish pic’s reputation and secure playdates that won’t shortly be bumped by higher-profile incoming product.
Film’s extraordinary quality is such a surprise because it comes so entirely out of the blue. Who would have expected so much from a kiddie film with a World War I-era Anglo-American backdrop that’s a remake of a 1917 Mary Pickford silent and a 1939 Shirley Temple vehicle and that’s directed by a virtually unknown young Mexican filmmaker?
But it’s clear from the outset that something special is in store. Ten-year-old Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews) is living the charmed life in India in 1914. The daughter of a loving British Army captain, she is deeply immersed in the exotic, mythical tales of the land, and a brilliantly stylized opening begins to relate the legend of Ramayana, in which a monster kidnaps the beautiful Princess Sitaand keeps her in a tower, separated from the young Prince Rama.
When the war calls Capt. Crewe (Liam Cunningham), he enrolls Sara at Miss Minchin’s School for Girls, the same tony New York establishment her late mother attended (shifted from the London setting of the novel).
Bidding a sad farewell to her father, Sara, with her confident ways, quickly wins over many of the girls by introducing an element of excitement and adventure into their strictly regimented lives, telling them extravagant stories that are so much more captivating than anything in their dull books.
Neither this nor her cheeky attitude toward school rules go over too well with the stern Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron), who moves to curb Sara’s influence by banning all make-believe from the premises.
But even this can’t squelch Sara’s irrepressible imagination, as the born storyteller continues to hold forth in private nocturnal sessions in her room to an enthusiastic audience.
Forty minutes in, however, the crushing news arrives: Capt. Crewe is reported killed in battle.
Previously obliged to tolerate Sara because of her father’s financial largess , Miss Minchin instantly yanks her out of class, strips her of all privileges and possessions and banishes her to the attic, which she must share with black servant girl Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester).
“You’re not a princess any longer,” Miss Minchin vengefully informs Sara, who is forbidden to speak to the other girls and must now work like a slave just to keep a roof over her head.
Sara and Becky forge an immediate bond, and Sara also establishes contact with a sagelike Indian manservant, Ram Dass (Errol Sitahal), who lives next door.
Without Sara knowing it, her neighbor, through a mix-up in identities, takes in a wounded soldier with acute amnesia, and the impassioned final act is given over to the race for Sara and her lost father to find each other, a la Prince Rama and Princess Sita in the legendary story, before Miss Minchin can turn her upstart little prisoner over to the authorities.
Based on Burnett’s novel “Sara Crewe,” which she later adapted into the phenomenally successfully play “The Little Princess,” the time-tested story provides for dramatic and emotional engagement on several levels, including the intense father-daughter bond, the conspiratorial alliance among young girls, the hatred for unjust authority and the lure of escape into fabulous fantasy. The lively, intelligent script by Richard LaGravenese and Elizabeth Chandler makes knowing, judicious use of all these elements, balancing them expertly and adding shorthand insights into class divisions early in the century with special sympathy for oppressed women who manage, with spirit and imagination, to transcend their proscribed places.
But, most of all, “A Little Princess” is itself a riot of cinematic imagination, with a visual style that fully expresses all of the story’s thematic potential without ever going overboard into show-offy excess for its own sake. Alfonso Cuaron, whose exuberant, mildly amusing AIDS-era sex comedy “Love in the Time of Hysteria” made the fest rounds in 1991, has made a Hollywood debut that is never less than dazzling. Working entirely in the studio and on a backlot street set, he and his collaborators have created an entirely artificial world where humdrum reality is threatened at every moment to be overwhelmed by vibrant light and color, a world in which the creative urge refuses to be dimmed or compromised by the imperatives of conformity.
With invaluable assists from production designer Bo Welch, costume designer Judianna Makovsky and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuaron brings the slightly heightened quality of magical realism to the Ramayana sequences, whose color schemes outdo anything since the days of Carmen Miranda.
The boarding school scenes are superbly designed in varying shades of green, with meticulous attention having been paid to matters of detail and scale.
Performances could scarcely be improved upon. Golden-faced, clear-eyed and utterly self-confident without being excessively pretty or overbearing, Matthews is a constant delight as Sara, entirely believable as a born leader among girls. With allowances for her American accent, incongruous for the daughter of a British officer, she carries the film effortlessly.
Faultlessly adopting an Eastern seaboard accent, British actress Bron scores heavily as the repressed and repressive Miss Minchin. Rusty Schwimmer delivers some jolly comic and romantic relief as Minchin’s roly-poly sister, while Cunningham cuts the right serious, idealized figure as Capt. Crewe. All other actors, notably the many young girls, are unerringly on the money.
Pic is marvelously crafted in every respect, and score by Patrick Doyle, the resourceful composer for Kenneth Branagh’s films, imaginatively incorporates diverse musical influences to provide a rich background for the dazzlingly visual storytelling.