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Princess is a little too sweet, but ultimately endearing

A Little Princess

Directed by Alfonso Cuarn.

Written by Richard LaGravenese and Elizabeth Chandler; based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Starring Eleanor Bron, Liam Cunningham, and Liesel Matthews.

Sony Copley Place.

Opens Friday.

By Teresa Esser
Staff Reporter

ALittle Princess is an enchanting movie that succeeds in drawing in skeptics against their will. Sometimes gushy and always cute, the film provides an in-depth look at a blissful childhood fantasy that is suddenly interrupted.

The characters portrayed in the film version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's play provide a veritable collage of stark contrasts. Sarah Crowe is portrayed as a little angel: beautiful, poised, and rich. Her romanticized relationship with her exceedingly doting and chivalrous father is nothing short of idyllic: They waltz together on the deck of a transcontinental steamer, huddle together, and evem "memorize" one another's faces before he leaves to fight in World War I.

Throughout the film, Sarah's angelic nature removes her from the petty concerns of the other girls at her boarding school. She is beautiful; they are fat. She is wealthy beyond belief; their working-class parents must scrimp and save to keep their daughters in school. Sarah learned to speak fluent French while living in the exotic and wonderful land of India while the other girls have been trapped in their rooms, forced to endure endless hours of rote memorization. In addition, Sarah's godlike Indian tutors have instilled in her a sense of decency and self-respect strong enough to carry her through even the most trying situations.

"You are my little princess," Sarah's father tells her. To Sarah, every girl is a princess, regardless of what kind of house she lives in or whether or not her clothes are full of holes.

Sarah's child/saint character counterpoints the wicked witch of Miss Mitchum, whose chief goal in life seems to be to terrorize her adolescent pupils as much as possible. It is not clear exactly why she hates the girls so much; but then, most children probably wouldn't ask.

Perhaps it is the overly romantic nineteenth century writing style that lends the film its artificially sweet air. Or perhaps the movie is targeted toward young children. At any rate, it is often difficult to accept a cast of characters who are either exclusively good or evil. Sarah has no flaws, for example. Like a pre-teen Barbie come to life, she accepts all of the other children as equals, offering them friendship even when they reject her.

All criticisms aside, however, the movie excels in its ability to communicate real-life problems to an extremely young audience. Sarah's covert friendship with the black servant Becky highlights both their racial and economic differences. Later in the movie, when Sarah loses access to her father's fortune, the movie emphasizes the importance of judging others solely on the strength of their character. This virtue plays out, for instance, when Becky reciprocates Sarah's blind generosity, her ablility to see past class and race.

Sarah's ongoing bedtime stories serve both to enchant the other girls with her remarkable background and to bring Mr. Crowe's actual war experiences home to the young children. Everyone gasps when Sarah's hero succumbs to poison gas in the playground of Sarah's fantasyscape; what they don't realize is that Sarah's real-life heroic father is just then collapsing under a cloud of chlorine. This ongoing dramatic parallel is one of the movie's best features.

The Little Princess also derives an element of magic from the wise but silent background character of "Sahib," an Indian fairy godfather who watches over Sarah and provides the strategic informational cues needed to bring back her happy days.

In the final analysis, A Little Princess provides an excellent cinematic diversion for a young child or any adult who still believes in magic. The scenery and costuming are second to none, and parts of the film are genuinely thrilling. If a viewer can get past the first half hour of pure sap, he or she will be surprised the movie's subtle brilliance.