A Little Princess (1995)

Alfonso Cuarón | 1hr 37min

Like the fanciful stories that Sara tells her fellow students, her entire life within the context of A Little Princess takes the form of a fairy tale, as if wished into existence by her own imagination. The kind young maiden, her dashing saviour, the cruel monster that has imprisoned her – this is a fable of classic archetypes conjured up in a 1910s New York boarding school, and Alfonso Cuarón skilfully draws a light thread of magical realism through it all, adopting the fantastical point-of-view of his young, inventive protagonist. Lingering on the edges of her consciousness is a fear for her father’s safety while fighting in World War I, and through some clever intercutting it is evident that her stories aren’t just a form of escapism, but an indirect sublimation of that concern. For as long as she lives under the rule of cruel headmistress Miss Minchin, they are all she has to fight off the despair.

Being a film that focuses so heavily on child actors, it is not surprising that there are often awkward contrivances in their performances, and it doesn’t help that some of their lines tend to repeat the same mantras in ham-fisted variations. This is not a film of great subtlety or complexity in its construction though, nor is it pretending to be. Above all else, A Little Princess aims for bright, bold fantasy, evoking a nostalgia for childhood where even the worst evils can be overcome by the sheer power of will, and where evocative colours are weaved through emotional and artistic expressions with vivid, soothing elegance.

Fine detail in the set design make for some elegant compositions, drawing out the sensitivity in Sara’s closest relationships.

Throughout most of Cuarón’s films, it is often assorted shades of green which dominate his mise-en-scène, whether in the lighting, colour grading, or production design. Here in A Little Princess, his delicately curated period décor is steeped in them, not so much taking on a symbolic representation of any fixed idea than calling to mind abstract associations of fantasy, youth, nature, and perhaps in the case of the repressed Miss Minchin, even envy. In a way, what Cuarón does with colour here is comparable to what Ingmar Bergman accomplishes in Fanny and Alexander, crafting vibrant, plush interiors that insulate the imagination of their young inhabitants from those heartless grown-ups looking to force it out of them. Based on his superb world-building and classical narrative structure as well, it also isn’t hard to see why Cuarón was selected to direct Harry Potter and the Prison of Azkaban nine years later, given that both incidentally share a good number of the same fantasy conventions.

A distinct Ingmar Bergman influence in the Fanny and Alexander production design and narrative, crafting colourfully plush interiors around our imaginative young protagonist.
As the distance between child and parent widens, the sets become noticeably harsher – and again, this shot of Sara lying on the floor of the attic looks strikingly similar to a similar scene in Fanny and Alexander.

Certainly some credit must also go to Bo Welch, Tim Burton’s regular production designer, whose first and only collaboration with Cuarón here stands among his finest efforts. The girls’ olive-green school uniforms beautifully complement the building’s painted and wallpapered interiors, and within its carved, wooden doorways and high ceilings Cuarón often finds the most evocative angles from which to frame his actors. His gorgeous green motif continues to run through the tiniest props of balloons, candles, apples, and flowers, each arranged with care in scenes of birthday parties and meal times. When we move outside, this ambitious artistic vision only continues to reveal itself, with the building exteriors lining the Manhattan streets conforming to the colour palette as well.

A formal dedication to the colour green in every scene – the uniforms, the decor, even the food on the table at meal times.

A Little Princess does not just signal a promising career for Cuarón though, as cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is also at work here developing his own distinctive style of gliding cameras and long takes, running along breakfast tables and through rooms with a graceful sweep. The effect is distinctly fantastical, even in those scenes which are otherwise grounded in reality, enthusiastically engaging with Sara’s mind that finds wonder and excitement in even the barest of environments. Within her tales of Indian gods and demons, Cuarón uses a strange, colourful mix of practical and computer-generated effects to create an expressionistic sort of artifice, visualising the wild imagination that has captivated her peers.

An even greater artifice in the design of Sara’s fairy tale interludes, carrying through the green motif in the surreal sets.

Quite significantly, Sara’s brilliant creativity is given tangible purpose in the parallels between her whimsical tales and her father’s fight in the war, finding a lighter, more digestible spin on uncomfortable truths beyond her comprehension. At the end of the day, she wins her freedom in the exact same way the heroes of her stories earn theirs – through courage, imagination, ingenuity, kindness, and love. In short, all those things that fairy tales value so highly, while sneering critics like Miss Minchin call them naïve. She is not disengaging from society, but rather making sense of its troubles in her own way, and it is through this empathetic curiosity that Cuarón paints out his own expression of wonder, recognising the creative potential of stories to inspire hope, bridge connections, and liberate prisoners of a cynical world.

The streets of New York have never looked so green as they do here, brimming with life and fantasy.

A Little Princess is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.


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