Human Crackers in My Soup

Film: A Little Princess
Year: 1995
Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Some years before introducing realism to fantasy in his murky adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Alfonso Cuarón attempted more or less the reverse: to marry fancy with hard-knock reality in his nonmusical remake of a 1939 Shirley Temple vehicle called The Little Princess. If a grim reupholstering of the wizarding world threw some character-building mud in Harry Potter’s eye, then I suppose A Little Princess is successful in its own way: this uplifting poor-little-rich-girl parable is just as severely mawkish as Azkaban was brooding and seductive.

The story is one of a motherless young bonnie named Sara, played with a sort of breathy charm by passable Gen-X Shirley clone Liesel Matthews, who grows up so wealthy with her father in colonial India that she… well, continues to be wealthy when she is relocated to an austere boarding school in New York City. Better endowed in both intellect and toys than the other students, she plays Cool Hand Luke to her peers’ repressed imaginations and antiquated etiquette—an easy assignment considering she need only part her lips to speak during mealtime, let alone cram fifty boiled eggs between them, to effectively stick it to the Man.

The Man, in this case, is the boarding school’s Dickensian headmistress, Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron), who, we are led to believe, projects her own unhappy upbringing onto her pupils. Naturally, she is infuriated by so free a spirit as Sara’s.

The darling implant nonetheless thrives in her new environs—that is, until her pop is slain in the Great War and her assets are absorbed by Miss Minchin, who spitefully demotes her to scullery maid status. What’s a girl of gentility to do when she’s exiled to a carpetless bedchamber with naught but a fully functioning roof and bed? It’s almost two whole days before an Indian man of mystery (Errol Sitahal) materializes to return some wonder to her life. Somehow, little Sara persists.

Vincent Schiavelli, the poignantly monikered “man with the sad eyes,” shows up for one sorrowful scene looking like the week-old corpse of Louis C.K., then is kicked to the curb, his valuable talents unspent. In this manner, time and again, the movie makes the least of its potential. There are a few rousing moments when it verges on exploring wealth as the complex issue that it is, and certainly should be for these sorts of characters in this sort of situation. (It’s interesting to know that Matthews has had no fewer than eleven relatives on the Forbes 400 list, and once sued her family for $6 billion.) For the most part, however, it prefers to run out the clock with dimensionally challenged magical realism.

Scattered seconds display the visual invention I’ve come to expect from Cuarón, one of which puts an inspired, macabre twist on The Red Balloon, while the other, a fleeting but impressive montage segment, has Sara’s chief toddler-in-tiara tormentor treading maliciously over her fresh-mopped floor. The cutting and camera movements are otherwise awfully opaque throughout—strange, considering that Cuarón’s debut feature, Sólo Con Tu Pareja, also filmed by the incomparable Emmanuel Lubezki, was so seamless in the same departments. And while we’re at it, the WWI scenes here are so plastic they might as well have been staged with tiny green army men in a backyard sandbox. Sure, more authenticity might put a strain on the movie’s G-rated limits, but remember these are the guys who shot some of the most creatively conceived and benumbingly raw warfare scenes of forever and ever in Children of Men.

All right, I can sense I’m punching the kitten here. I have no doubt that to any member of its target audience, which is emphatically not me but rather little girls who haven’t had their fill of being called princess, the movie is all but overwhelmingly enchanting. But then, I think of Matilda—a picture from the following year and of similar setting and values, which is no less a multifarious joy to me today than it was at age nine. A children’s movie with adult soul and wit is possible.

Of course, I realize that doesn’t make it necessary. A Little Princess procures plenty of sweetness from its script, levity from its performances and score, and luxuriance from its visual design—all qualities shared by any fine whipped cream.

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