If you ask a little girl what she would like to be when she grows up, don’t be surprised if she replies with the lofty choice of ‘princess’. From fairy tales that date back hundreds of years to modern animated fare, princesses are one of the most instantly recognizable and enduring symbols of girlhood. In recent years, however, the princess tradition has been called into question by feminists and modern critics who claim that it promotes traditional values that are of little use in the modern world. One fairly recent film, however, challenges this criticism through its assertion that the term ‘princess’ can hold a meaning far deeper and more relevant than wearing a tiara and being rescued; the 1995 adaptation of the 1905 Frances Hodgson Burnett novel A Little Princess.
|If only more kids' movies were so heartfelt. *I'm not gonna cry...*|
The story begins with 10 year-old Sara Crewe living a carefree life in British occupied India with her widowed father. Conflict enters the pair’s idyllic existence when World War I breaks out and Captain Crewe is called to service (an update from the novel’s 1890’s setting during the Boer War), leading him to entrust Sara’s care to a New York boarding school that her late mother had attended. Upon arriving in New York, Sara is faced with the harsh reality of life within the restrictions of conventional society, as she is met with resistance from the faculty and students alike. With patience and diligence, however, she adapts to the rigorous rules and monotonous lessons of the school, and quickly becomes one of the most popular students through her imagination and charm. These same qualities that set her apart as a student -body favorite also make her stand out as a threat to the faculty, who view her advanced educational background and creativity as a threat to the status quo. When Sara’s father is reported killed and his assets are seized by the British government, the school's cruel headmistress, Miss Minchin, reveals her true colors and forces Sara to live in the school’s attic and work alongside African-American servant girl Becky until she can repay her debt to the school. Orphaned and outcast from her peers, Sara finds herself alone in a harsh world with only her imagination and her firm belief that “every girl is a princess” to cling to as she struggles to make her way in a world that seems to be coming apart all around her.
While children’s films too often resort to potty-humor and trite sentiment to entertain their young audiences, A Little Princess instead tells a story about children that is equally directed towards adult audiences. Rather than the fanciful tale of royalty in a far-away land that its title suggests, the film is instead an exploration of resilience in the face of hardship. While many children’s films feature larger than life villains and outrageous obstacles, Sara faces all too real adversity in the forms of poverty, grief, and societal indifference. As a result, her story is one which resonates with audiences of all ages and walks of life, and whose lessons will remain with children as they grow old enough to understand their full significance. Through its weaving of history and magical realism into what would otherwise be a simple tale of riches to rags and back again, the film transforms Sara’s journey into both an ode to individuality and a tale of the redemptive power of creativity. The film’s inclusion of scenes from the stories that Sara regales her classmates with allows viewers added insight into her mind and reveals the ways in which she uses fiction to cope with the contradictions and losses of her reality. In this way the film also encourages its young viewers to look to its own fictional heroine for inspiration.
|Good friends and good stories; all any party needs|
The recurring mantra of the film is that “all girls are princesses”; an axiom that Sara’s nanny in India first teaches her and Captain Crewe later reinforces before leaving for the trenches. At first glance, this notion could be viewed as a contrived theme that is too flimsy to sustain an entire film. As the film progresses, however, the idea of ‘a princess’ is redefined so that it bears little resemblance to the stereotypical image of a Barbie-esque beauty in a crown and ball gown. Within the context of the film, ‘princess’ is simply a fantasy term that Sara uses to express her belief that she and her classmates are people of value and worth despite what the world at large would have them believe. The wider range of the term in the film is evidenced when Sara responds to the teasing of snarky Lavinia that “all girls are princesses; even snotty, two-faced bullies like you”, as Sara’s definition extends beyond herself and her friends to all women, including her enemies. The emphasis upon princess as a non-discriminating term makes the word become a symbol of equality and unity in contrast to the divisions of class and race that permeate the time period in which the film is set. By the time that Sara reiterates her beloved mantra to Miss Minchin in the film’s climax, it has become a rallying cry for truth, equality, and dignity rather than the sugary catchphrase that it begins as in the film’s start. As a result, in Sara Crewe’s hands, princess is a term of female empowerment that holds resonance for women of all ages rather than the fanciful dream that critics have come to dismiss it as.
The film’s cast aptly brings its unique version of 1914 India and New York to life through a series of intelligent and heartfelt performances. The child actresses portraying Sara’s schoolmates approach their roles with an intelligence and variety that makes viewers feel as though they are actually witnessing the daily interactions of a group of real children, each with their own desires, interests, and distinct personalities. Heather DeLoach (of Blind Melon music video, ‘No Rain’, fame), and Kelsey Mulrooney particularly stand-out in their portrayals of the initially timid but eventually empowered Ermengarde and lovable but wayward Lottie. Vanessa Lee-Chester and Taylor Fry are excellent in their opposing roles as Sara’s loyal best friend and manipulative arch-enemy, each employing depth and individuality to ensure that their roles are characters rather than caricatures. Eleanor Bron and Rusty Schwimmer shine in their roles as the Minchen sisters, with Schwimmer’s well-meaning but utterly incompetent Amelia and Bron’s manipulative and cruel Headmistress Minchin personifying the ineptitude, hypocrisy, and brutality of the both the adult world and society at large. Liam Cunningham perfectly balances his role as Captain Crewe between the loving father that Sara knows and the dignified officer who is called to lead his men into battle. Liesel Matthews gives a truly commanding performance in her role as Sara, combining by turns wide-eyed innocence, self-assuredness, and steely resilience to portray the difficult role of a natural leader. In each of their varied roles, the cast evade the typical pit-falls of children’s films by avoiding the all too common hysteria, syrupy sweetness, and stereotypes usually dispensed to young audiences, and instead keep the sometimes fantastic plot grounded through a series of emotionally honest and complex performances.
At once a story of one girl’s experience in a distant time and place and a universal tale of love, loss, survival, and redemption; A Little Princess is far from your average family film. Through its enchantingly fantastic view of the world in all its beauty and severity, the film echoes the wonders, innocence, and fears of childhood. Even though I am now an adult and decades have passed since I first saw this film, I continue to find its central message of the importance of self-worth and maintaining one’s individuality both empowering and essential. This film is a must see for any adult who still believes in the magic of creativity and love and any little girl who has ever doubted that she not only could, but in fact should, be considered a princess.