A Little Princess Review

Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews) has grown up in India with her father (Liam Cunningham), but the outbreak of World War One means that her father has to join up in the military. Sara is sent to New York and enrols at an exclusive boarding school for girls run by Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron). To the martinet headmistress, Sara is a troublemaker, but while her place is being paid for she puts up with it. Then Captain Crewe is reported killed in action and things become much worse for Sara…

A Little Princess was only Alfonso Cuarón’s second feature, and his first made for an American major studio, outside his native Mexico. It had some of the best reviews of its year but sadly rave reviews didn’t translate into box office. This only goes to show how difficult it was (at the time) to sell a family picture that didn’t have the word “Disney” on the posters. That was a great pity, as this is one of the finest children’s films of the last fifteen years, and there’s plenty here to appeal to adults as well.

In the mid-Nineties, Warner Bros’s Family Entertainment division made a series of films newly adapting classic children’s fiction. A Little Princess was preceded by another adaptation of a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, 1993’s The Secret Garden, also excellent, and a comparison of the two is interesting. Secret Garden was directed by a Polish woman (Agnieszka Holland) and has an astringent, somewhat restrained quality to it. By contrast, A Little Princess, directed by a Mexican man, is bursting with colour and exuberance, not to mention more than a dash of magic realism. This only goes to show that children’s films, the same as any other kind, benefit from hiring talented people to make them.

Eleanor Bron is top-billed, but importantly she doesn’t overdo the villainy. In fact quite the opposite: it’s quite clear that her resentment of Sara has its roots in a resentment of creativity and imagination that she has denied herself, or been denied. Liam Cunningham gives a solid performance with a limited amount of screen time. Cuarón shows considerable ability in directing a large cast of children, in particular Liesel Matthews, who ably holds the film together. With the help of first-rate camerawork from his regular DP Emmanuel Lubezki, and sumptuous production and costume design, the film looks magnificent. But this would be nothing without a very talented filmmaker with a great eye: this film contains shot compositions you could quite happily hang up on your wall.

A strong storyline (the script is the work of Richard LaGravenese and Elizabeth Chandler) will keep the audience absorbed, with only Miss Minchin’s final scene coming off as a cheap shot. A Little Princess may be made for children – and, let’s face it, young girls rather than young boys – but it’s a film that everyone with an imagination can enjoy.

This was a very early release from Warners, who were one of the first major studios to start releasing much of their back catalogue on disc. A Little Princess is typical of much of them: very little to fault the picture and sound, but no extras to speak of, if there were any at all. The DVD is encoded for both Regions 2 and 4.

The picture is anamorphic in a ratio of 16:9, opened up slightly from the intended cinema ratio of 1.85:1. It’s a little on the soft side, which is partly intentional and partly due to a middling bitrate that hovers around the 5Mbps mark. There’s some artefacting in darker scenes, and some macroblocking on solid swathes of colour (such as the green background to the end credits). It’ll certainly be acceptable on most people’s players, though it’s fair to say that DVD standards and bitrates have generally gone up in the last five years.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, either in the original English or in four dubbed versions. For much of the film it’s devoted to Patrick Doyle’s score and some ambient sounds. Surround activity increases at certain points of the film and the climax, with the subwoofer helping out with thunderclaps and other such sounds. However, most of the film is dialogue-driven, and that comes across clearly. On the whole, this is a well-balanced track that does its job. It certainly justifies its 5.1 status, but for something that would really put your system through its paces look elsewhere.

There are no extras at all, not even a trailer. There are thirty-one chapter stops and a wide range of subtitle options.

A Little Princess was underrated (publicly if not critically) on its release and its reputation will hopefully grow. In the unlikely event of a special edition, this early bare-bones release from Warner will certainly do, and you should be able to find it quite cheaply nowadays.

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Last updated: 26/04/2018 23:39:30

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