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A Little Princess

Rated G, 97 min. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Starring Eleanor Bron, Liam Cunningham, Liesel Matthews, Vanessa Lee Chester, Rusty Schwimmer, Errol Sitahal, Heather Deloach.

REVIEWED By Hollis Chacona, Fri., May 26, 1995

Sometimes, when I visit the places of my childhood, I am struck by how small everything is. It's not just the physical diminution -- the knee-level school drinking fountain or the barely-off-the-ground tree limb that seemed so daringly high -- but the subdued spirit of the place that affects me. The treetops rustle rather than waltz with the wind, the brilliant colors of the birds and flowers seem muted, and the magic boulder where we tea-partied and cast spells and looked for signs of elves now has a decidedly unmagical, plain-gray rockness about it. I have become such a grownup. But last night, for two enchanting hours, my world became big and colorful and lavish and lyrical again. Director Alfonso Cuaron, in his first American movie, has fashioned a world so real and so engaging that you can feel it and smell it and taste it as surely as if you were there. Based on the Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden) novel, A Little Princess tells the tale of a young girl who moves to her mother's native land from India, where she has been living with her widowed father. Captain Crewe is called to fight in World War I and determines that Miss Minchin's School for Girls in America is a safer place than England for 10-year-old Sarah. At first, Sarah's loneliness and aversion to her new prim and stuffy surroundings is buffered by Miss Minchin's desire to please the affluent Captain Crewe and by her own affinity for the magic of make-believe. She shares the lore of her beloved India (as well as her Indian nanny's assertion that all girls are princesses) with her fellow students and with the serving girl, Becky, who quickly become an avid audience for tales romantic. But when Captain Crewe is reported killed in action, Sarah becomes a penniless orphan and is exiled to the attic with Becky to earn her keep. Now it is Becky and the other girls who must keep the magic of hope alive for Sarah. And A Little Princess is radiant with magic. The love between Sarah (Liesel Matthews in her first, but definitely not last, screen performance) and her father (Liam Cunningham) is palpable and enduring -- the two have a familial chemistry that fills the theatre. The scenes played out from Sarah's Indian stories are dazzling. They have the super-dimensional clarity, brilliant color, and oddly voyeuristic feel of Viewmaster slides, while the school is all long polished hallways, subdued colors, and the exaggerated scale of a place that dwarfs children rather than exalts them. From the exquisite costumes to the remarkable set design to the superb performances, this fairy tale comes to life in a way that makes you despair at its ending. But though end it must, its spirit of imagination and its magic of abiding love lingers on.
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