When I was a little girl my mother took me to see A Little Princess and we adored it. Something about it touched my innocent little heart, back before it turned a pallid grey color and grew thorny vines.
After spotting it in the Netflix streaming list, I added it to the queue and patiently waited for my boyfriend to leave the house so I could watch it. (I do the same thing with House Hunters. Turning on House Hunters is met with such chilling disdain-like I’m live-streaming Guantanamo Bay or a Siberian orphanage.)
Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel (which, alas, I haven’t read), A Little Princess follows little rich girl Sara Crewe from her free-spirited life in India to a strict New York boarding school. Her father, Captain Crewe, has been called to action in WWI, so Sara must wait out the war from the safety of her dead mother’s alma mater, Ms. Minchin’s School for Girls.
Sara’s vivid imagination ingratiates her to all but two characters in her new home, the catty queen bee type girl, and Ms. Minchin herself, whose stern, puritan demeanor clashes with Sara’s vision that “every girl is a princess.”
Ms. Minchin gets her kicks when Sara’s father dies and the English government recoups his estate. Sara is relegated to indentured servitude in the creaky, leaking turret atop the school. Even with her new friend Becky, the seasoned servant girl, Sara’s optimism is tested by the spartan cruelty of her new life.
The ending is melodramatic and apparently a departure from Burnett’s novel, but this is a children’s movie and it seems a little wicked to give the kiddies Sara’s sad story without a happy ending.
Director Alfonso Cuaron builds a lush, detailed visual journey that reinforces the stations in Sara’s life. In India she ran through forests and swam with her friends, in New York she’s confined to the rigid elegance of an urban boarding school, and in poverty she subsists on memories of the sumptuous textures and colors of her days in India.
Sara’s “every little girl is a princess” mantra indeed seems irritating, and we sympathize with Ms. Minchin’s horror. But let’s chew on that. In Ms. Minchin’s rank and file world, little girls wear the same green dress and never step out of line. Her school is a factory for raising well-bred, compliant young women who will make mute, graceful society wives. Her calculated outlook is cold, but she’s a product of her circumstances. In one particularly riveting scene, Sara and Ms. Minchin go head to head over The Princess Theory and we realize that nobody has ever made Ms. Minchin feel special. Because for Sara, every little girl deserves warmth and love—that is what “princess” means to her. (It’s not quite as obnoxious as “Every little girl is super special and should have a Twitter account to share her most banal observations.”) I have a bone to pick with Ms. Minchin’s resolution in this story, because she’s treated with dimension as a villain and, I think, deserves more than she gets in the end.
As an adult I see why this movie stuck with me for so long. A Little Princess is a touching story, and it will always remind me of sitting in a theater with my mother as a “little princess” myself. Ok. Enough with the sentiment. I have a pallid grey heart.