Starring: Liesel Matthews, Eleanor Bron, Liam Cunningham, Vanessa Lee Chester, Rusty Schwimmer, Arthur Malet
Rated PG (for Cruelty...I guess)
I heard, or possibly read, somewhere that kids movies are at their best when they give kids the impression that they can have an impact on the world. I can't remember for the life of me who said it, but it's so true. These days, with all the marketing blitzes and brand names and cute little supporting characters, kids, even if they're lucky enough to be at the forefront of a movie, rely on others for help. That's not the case here. The lead character is a little girl named Sara, and she matches wits with war, chance and the meanest matron ever to run a boarding school. And comes out on top.
Sara Crewe (Matthews) lives with her father (Cunningham) in India, where he impresses upon her that, despite not being "royalty," is a princess. But war is coming, and he must leave Sara in the care of Miss Minchin (Bron), who runs a boarding school in New York City. With her imagination and gift for storytelling, Sara quickly becomes the most popular girl there, but also the bane of Miss Minchin, whose love of rules borders on sadism. Miss Minchin sees her chance to break her new ward when she gets disturbing news about Sara's father. Now broke and alone, Sara must stay at the school not as a student, but a servant. What Miss Minchin doesn't count on is the strength of Sara's spirit.
In his American debut, Alfonso Cuaron seeks to replicate that rare movie magic which made us fall in love with movies in the first place. "A Little Princess" doesn't rely on stars, special effects, or brand names for its success. Rather, it achieves it through something much more rare and much more powerful: good old fashioned storytelling. It's rare that a movie finds that "sweet spot," especially in a kids' movie, but Cuaron gets it mostly right.
The acting has its rough spots here and there, but on the whole it impresses. Making her screen debut is Liesel Matthews. One of the heirs to the Hilton hotel chain, Matthews shines with warmth and goodness, exactly the qualities needed to play the title character. Matthews (who chose the surname after her brother as opposed to her real one, Pritzker, after a herculean fight between her family) gets us to believe in magic, and is more than capable of holding her own against her co-stars. Eleanor Bron makes for a mean old witch, but she has her reasons for hating Sara as much as she does...reasons that we understand but don't sympathize with. Liam Cunningham, looking very much like Jason Isaacs, is a real surprise. Known mainly for playing tough, intense characters in "Game of Thrones," "Centurion" and in particular "Dog Soldiers," Cunningham is filled with warmth and love. He and Matthews have a lot of chemistry together, and I was able to feel their bond from their first scene.
There are so few movies out there for young girls, and most of them are horrible. They send the worst kind of messages and are of the lowest quality of filmmaking. Fortunately, here is an exception. If only Hollywood would make more movies like this...