by Mel Valentin
Before he directed the critically well-received "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," Alfonso Cuaron helmed the most recent adaptation of "A Little Princess," a beloved, much-filmed children's classic written by Frances Hodgson Burnett (who also penned another children's favorite, "The Secret Garden"). In retrospect, "A Little Princess" seems like a feature-length audition for the latest entry in the Harry Potter franchise. A close comparison between the two films reveals similarities in subject matter, themes, and even visual composition and production design.Plot wise,A Little Princess and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban center on an orphan struggling to survive at a boarding school. In both films, the main character is preternaturally gifted. In the Harry Potter films, Harry is the tragic, sole survivor of a mysterious event, but also a powerful wizard-in-training. In A Little Princess, the central character, Sarah Crewe (Liesel Matthews) lost her mother sometime in the past and at the end of the first act, loses her father as well. Her gifts may not be magical, but she's a born storyteller, weaving magic and adventure into engaging, exotic fictions that draw the other boarders at the school to her stories, and, inevitably, to her.
"Flawed effort, notable mostly as a stepping stone for Alfonso Cuaron."
A further similarity is the setting: once Sarah’s officer father is called back to England (circa 1914), Sarah is quickly ushered half-way across the world from India to New York City, specifically a boarding school, Miss Minchin's School for Girls (imagine a scaled-down version of Hogwarts). There, Sarah must contend with the rules and regulations of the oppressive (and repressed) headmistress, a Cruella De Vil-like Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron), as well as finding her place within the rigid social hierarchy of the school (not surprisingly, several girls take an instant dislike to her, and one in particular becomes a minor antagonist). Miss Minchin tolerates Sarah's rebellious behavior only as long as Sarah's father pays for her lavish upkeep (Sarah is given the largest, most expensive room, and no expense is spared at Sarah's birthday party, thanks to her father’s wealth).
At Sarah's birthday party, a long-faced, taciturn attorney interrupts the jubilant festivities to reveal that Sarah's father is presumed dead at the Western Front. The British government has confiscated his assets (no reason for this development is given). From there, the plot takes a decidedly Dickensian turn, as Sarah is now relegated to serving girl, with the spiteful Miss Minchin berating her at every turn. Sarah is forced to wear rags and live in the attic with Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester), an African-American girl. Sarah, already sympathetic to Becky's plight now becomes her friend (their relationship is probably the hardest to accept in the film, the most "unreal" aspect of a narrative ostensibly set during the First World War, a period in American history not known for racial tolerance).
Further humiliations result, but the plot turns back in Sarah’s favor thanks to an Indian guardian angel (or, if you prefer, a conveniently placed deus ex machina), Ram Dass (Errol Sitahal). At several key points, Ram Dass appears either to share his wisdom, or to drive events to help Sarah out of the plot's multiplying complications. Ram Dass is also problematically exotic: an almost inscrutable Asian servant who appears to be holy man or wisdom teacher in disguise. Dass is emblematic of the storyline wholly dependent on plot turns filled with implausibilities, contrivances, and coincidences. Not only does Ram Dass gently encourage Sarah’s actions, he also contrives to bring a central character literally next door, yet fails to disclose this fact to either his employer or Sarah. Since the source material was intended for children (specifically pre-teen girls) and written during a more permissible time period in literature (Thomas Hardy comes to mind here), perhaps more flexible standards should be applied. Perhaps.
Given Cuaron's reputation for directing child actors, viewers will be disappointed by the flat and clumsy performances by the child actors. Granted the lead actress often has long dialogue scenes where she's forced to have a faraway look in her eyes (as she fabricates another story), and the dialogue can hardly be called naturalistic, but most of the children seem incapable of delivering their line readings with confidence or assurance. The adults, especially Liam Cunningham as Sarah's officer father, obviously acquit themselves better. It's hard to understand, however, how the children’s performances in A Little Princess recommended Cuaron to J.K. Rowling and her producers.
Comparing the visual design of the two films, however, might provide a clue in the right direction. In A Little Princess, Cuaron utilizes fluid, mobile camerawork (often using cameras mounted on cranes, both inside and outside the school sets), traveling and tracking shots that help the audience both explore the intricate, time-capsule world created by the production designer, Bo Welch (Batman Returns), and bring the audience closer to the action as it develops and the characters as they interact with one another. Some of the Prisoner of Azkaban’s camera moves or visual flourishes (e.g., an iris in/out effect and a crane move through a window) first appeared here.
Cuaron also deserves kudos for the brief scenes set at the Western front. His use of smoke machines, lighting, and cranework temporarily injects a heightened sense of realism (the phrase "fog of war" seems an apt description for this scene) into what is otherwise a children's fantasy film. Another scene would fit perfectly in Harry Potter's magical world: after Sarah's banishment to the attic, a burst of snow and heavenly light leads to Sarah's renewed beliefs about the power of imagination and creativity.As a standalone film, however, viewers might find themselves disappointed by the children's unpersuasive performances and the overabundance of coincidence and contrivance, but the production and the vibrant camerawork are enough to make "A Little Princess" a modestly entertaining experience, especially for families with small children.
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originally posted: 08/26/05 23:07:54