A Little Princess Revisited

In 1995, I was temporarily obsessed with the movie A Little Princess, based on a novel written 90 years earlier by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I know I wrote a book report on the novel in school and was impressed with Liesel Matthews' dream-like performance as Sara Crewe, but that's about all I remember. A friend of mine reminded me of my love for the movie when I was looking for suggestions for new blog posts. I decided to revisit it to see if it still had the same magic for me. During my research, I found a Buzzfeed article written by someone who did the exact same thing, and I found that I agree with many of the author's points. The movie becomes a lot darker when watching it again as an adult, but it is still very magical.

If you are unfamiliar with the story, A Little Princess is about a girl named Sara whose father sends her to a luxurious boarding school where the uniforms look like formal party dresses while he goes off to war. However, when he loses his money and is declared dead, Sara is stripped of her student privileges and forced to work at the school as a scullery maid to pay off her father's debt. Despite her unexpected fall from grace, she continues to tell magical stories that enchant the other girls at the school and befriends another maid named Becky who is the same age as her. Sara believes that every girl is a princess, even if she lives in an attic and wears rags every day. Her faith pays off in the end when fortune smiles upon her and she recovers her wealth. In the movie, her father turns out to be alive after all and simply had a case of amnesia. It's a "Cinderella" story if I've ever heard one.

As I watched A Little Princess, I couldn't help but be reminded of another live-action princess movie that came out in 2006. Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth has a similar feel to A Little Princess. It is also a war movie about a little girl who faces unfortunate circumstances and is left alone in the world but believes that she is a princess so hard that it comes true at the end. Like Sara, Ofelia loves fairy tale stories. She has a magical storybook that reveals the secrets to unlocking her past life as a magical princess from another world. Pan's Labyrinth is what A Little Princess would probably be if it were an actual fantasy movie instead of a story about a little girl with a big imagination. It the faith that these girls have in magic and fantasy in the midst of war and sadness that makes princesses so inspiring. Both Ofelia and Sara could have let their unfortunate circumstances cause them to lose hope, but instead, they kept dreaming of a better life until they turned those dreams into a reality.

What makes Sara such a great character is that even though her father spoils her, she never lets it get to her head, unlike Lavinia, the mean girl at her school. She stays true to who she is and helps all of the other girls at the school, even after she thinks they've given up on her. When Sara's situation appears hopeless, other girls remember her beautiful stories. They return her stolen locket and restore her faith in magic and humanity. Sara is the sort of princess that girls should strive to be, one who is kind to those around her and believes in her dreams against all odds. Her belief that every girl is a princess is not problematic because it gives girls an opportunity to stand together as equals and support each other, which is truly a feminist message. If every girl is a princess, no one is better than anyone else. Women should support each other as sisters, not as rivals. Sara's goal is to raise other girls to believe in themselves, instead of trying to take back what she feels is rightfully hers.

The movie simplified the original novel for the sake of pacing, and in doing so, they changed the ending in a way that not all fans were happy with. In the book, she was adopted by her father's friend who ended up with his fortune. However, in the 1995 movie adaptation, she discovered her amnesiac father was living next door and cured him of his ailment in an exciting climax involving falling from a rooftop and running from the police. Oh, and it was also pouring rain. While it's very clear that this scene was jazzed up by Hollywood, I don't think the resolution really changes the story that much. In the novel, her faith in her own inner strength and nobility brought her back to her original affluent status. In the movie, the same thing happened. The only difference was that the person who provided her with her fortune was someone who knew her father instead of her actual father. I think this works just fine for a Hollywood blockbuster because it gives people the ending they want, without altering the final message.

A Little Princess is a magical movie because it shows us that every girl is a princess as long as she believes in herself. The beautiful score and creative visuals of Sara's stories about the Rama and Indian princess stick with its audience long after they forget what the movie was about. Pan's Labyrinth is a modernized version of this story, featuring a girl living in war-torn Spain. Both movies are inspiring and feature all of the things I love about princesses and storytelling.


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