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Alfonso Cuarón’s A Little Princess is a gloriously colorful, visually intoxicating film that is bursting at the seams with hope.  Based upon the children’s novel of the same title, A Little Princess follows the twists of fate of Sara Crewe (played by Liesel Mathews), a young girl who has been lovingly convinced of the notion that all girls and women are princesses.  The film opens in an expressionistic, fantastic India where the mythic characters Prince Rama and Sita are acting out their fabled adventures.  As Sara’s voice narrates in excited, mesmerizing tones, the myth disappears and gives way to (an equally fantastic) early 20th century India, where Sara sits in soaked undergarments atop a sculpture in a pond, playing giddily with her Ayah and a baby elephant.  This idyllic world of sunsets and saffron in which Sara has grown up is lingered in only briefly, as Sara’s father informs her that he has enlisted in the British army for the Great War, and that soon she will begin attending the same boarding school in New York City her late mother attended.

And so Sara is forced to part with her beloved Papa (a reserved yet intensely intimate Liam Cunningham), and is briskly awakened to the reality of the Minchin School for Girls and the school’s severely heartless matriarch, Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron).  Miss Minchin presides over her dozen privileged girls with a shrewd, terrifying smoothness that allows her to flutter bizarrely down stairs and cast withering looks from over her gaunt cheekbones.  Though the vulturess tolerates Sara for the estimable checks Captain Crewe sends along to the Minchin establishment, the girls of the school quickly and sincerely fall in love with Sara for her infectious wit and the wildly imaginative stories she conjures up. Yet periods of comfort and happiness can fade with little notice, and a Grim Solicitor arrives at the school to tell Miss Minchin of Captain Crewe’s death in the war, and consequently his government-seized fortune.

Sara, heartbroken and confused, suddenly finds herself at the mercy of a wickedly disenchanted headmistress.  The girl is forced to give up her pretty things and is relegated to the position of a servant at the school.  Her new room is the damp attic, stowed way up high where people can forget about her.  Though Sara is able to further nurture her friendship with Becky, the black servant girl whom the students are not permitted to talk to, she can feel her plucky, imaginative morale dangerously close to breaking. She is not yet aware that the aging Mr. Randolph, who lives next door to the Minchin School, has taken in an unidentified, bandaged soldier suffering from memory loss.  Though Mr. Randolph desperately hopes this soldier can give him information on the whereabouts of his own son, Mr. Randolph’s Indian assistant and confidante, Ram Dass, wisely detects another level of connection.  The observant Ram Dass cannot pinpoint the significance of the amnesiac man lying restlessly in their guest bedroom, but he finds himself looking to the attic window next door, gazing searchingly at the disinherited girl who lives there.

Sara Crewe is, in her own sparkly-eyed and ringleted way, a budding feminist.  The Minchin School for Girls is a training ground for the poised, polished, and predominantly silent ladies of the Victorian elite, a place where little girls are taught that the road to proper womanhood is lined with shoulder-straightening and tongue-biting.  When Sara first arrives at the school and is presented to her new peers, she stares at the girls as if they are a breed of animal more unusual than any she would have encountered in India.  An elegant slow-motion shot reveals a group of young ladies with identical dark green pinafores and oversized hairbows, lackadaisical from their daily French recitations and slumped in uniform lines of desks.  Dust particles glint in the air.  Sara, with her lavish cream-colored outfit and—more importantly—her alert expression, stands in striking visual opposition to the girls of the Minchin School.  Though she is forced to suit up and join the ranks of the green pinafore, Sara remains distinct from her classmates because of her insistence upon speaking and creating.  When handed a stale tome to read from before bedtime, Sara surveys the tedium-ridden young ladies surrounding her, and decides to improvise a torrid love affair and elopement from the words and characters given to her.  A girl with an imagination can buck the oppression of convention.

Imagination and love prove to be the two most important and most jubilantly, whole-heartedly celebrated things in A Little Princess.  When Sara awakens in her usually dreary attic room to discover a resplendent sunburst of finery from floor to ceiling, a series of shots show her sitting up in amazement four different times.  When the “snotty, two-faced bully” Lavinia hugs Sara in the final scene of the film, a sequence of three repeating shots shows the reformed mean girl embracing a surprised Sara.  Through creative and emphatic editing, these moments of love and imaginative power are given the highest significance.  In turn, love and creativity have the highest significance in the universe of a child.  Herein lies the simple brilliance of A Little Princess: children have the remarkable ability to want everything to be beautiful, an ability that fades with the progression of age and knowledge and the addictive power of misery.  Though a world-weary adult may see a gloss over some of the beauty in A Little Princess (the East is made hyperbolically exotic, Imperialism is made romantic), these problems dissipate with the acceptance that the world we are shown has been endowed with the glorious, uncritical spirit of a resilient young girl.  There is seemingly nothing beautiful about an orphaned child forced to live in a dark, frigidly cold attic.  Yet when Sara approaches that attic’s open window, her arms outstretched and silhouetted against the brilliant morning light and a dazzling billow of snow, we understand.  Her world is radiant and full of hope because she has the power to see it that way.

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