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ĎA Little Princessí (G)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 19, 1995

"A Little Princess" exquisitely re-creates the ephemeral world of childhood, an enchanted kingdom where everything, even make-believe, seems possible. Where decrees are made to be broken, save one that is inviolate: "All girls are princesses . . . even if they wear rags or are not pretty or smart." The hallmarks of a true princess, as this nourishing story teaches, are such qualities as kindness, courage and imagination.

Sarah Crewe (Liesel Matthews), the tale's spirited 10-year-old heroine, shares this wondrous information with her new classmates in a luminous adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel. Unlike most distaff mythology, the film does not concern the heroine's sexual awakening; it's more like the typical hero's journey described by scholar Joseph Campbell. Sarah, the adored and pampered child of a wealthy British widower, must pass a series of tests, thereby discovering her inner strengths.

The story begins in India, where Sarah has been reared on her nanny's exotic tales of Prince Rama and his beautiful wife, Princess Sita. When World War I breaks out, Sarah's father (Liam Cunningham) is called upon to serve. For her safety, the girl is sent to a stuffy New York boarding school.

Miss Minchin's School for Girls is administered by the sourpuss Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron), a character from the same line as Mrs. Danvers in Daphne Du Maurier's "Rebecca." Miss Minchin takes an immediate dislike to the spunky heroine, who speaks better French than she does and questions her silly rules. Worse yet, Sarah introduces her classmates to tales of Lord Rama and his lady love.

Miss Minchin forbids make-believe, so the girls gather for secret storytelling sessions in Sarah's room, where the characters come to life in their vivid imaginations. And the tale of the Indian prince, drawn from the myth of Ramayana, parallels the story of Sarah's separation from her father, who is eventually lost in the European trenches. Miss Minchin can barely suppress her glee upon learning that Capt. Crewe's fate has left her young nemesis penniless.

After pulling a simple black frock from Sarah's extensive wardrobe, Miss Minchin strips the girl of her possessions, dismisses her from class and sends her to live in the attic with the black servant girl, Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester). Like Becky, Sarah is not allowed to speak with the other children and must work like a slave for bed and board. But the sisterly bond she and Becky forge is worth more than all Sarah's pretty dresses and expensive toys.

The screenplay, by Richard LaGravanese and Elizabeth Chandler, is melodramatic, but never sticky and always suspenseful. Despite its many elements, the story should be easily followed by most children, who are sure to relate to the loving relationship between father and daughter, the conspiratorial one between Sarah and her girlfriends, and the mystical tie that binds Sarah and Becky to an Indian manservant next door.

Director Alfonso Cuaron, a 33-year-old Mexican whose only other feature film is an AIDS comedy not widely released, leaves the festival circuit far behind with this dazzling North American debut. Cuaron approaches the film not as a fairy tale for children, but a work of magic realism. And perhaps best of all, he doesn't talk down to young folks, in the audience or in the cast. The performances are as natural as skinned knees and missing teeth.

Liesel Matthews, who played Scout in a theatrical version of "To Kill a Mockingbird" before she was cast here, brings a measure of Scout's spunk to Sarah without turning the elegant young lady into a tomboy. Not that tomboys aren't princesses too.

A Little Princess is rated G.

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