A Little Princess (1995)
Written by Richard LaGravenese & Elizabeth Chandler
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
When I watch films intended for families or children, I always focus on the theme or lesson being communicated. I think, as an elementary teacher, I want to know what this picture is telling kids about the world and humanity. I’d heard very positive things about A Little Princess, mainly from the perspective that Alfonso Cuaron did a great job directing. From that technical perspective, the film is well done, save for some poorly aged computer special effects. But I actually found the lesson of the picture to be deeply troubling yet very much in line with many of the films that come out of Hollywood for kids.
Sara Crewe is the daughter of British Captain Richard Crewe and enjoys living in India with him. When the drums of war begin banging, Richard must follow them and deposits Sara at a boarding school in New York City that her American mother attended. Sara’s father spares no expense in getting her the most elegant accommodations in the school, which draws the ire of the headmistress, Miss Minchin. Minchin holds her tongue until word that Captain Crewe is believed killed in the war, and his assets have been seized by the British government. This leaves Sara penniless and sends her from luxury to working as a scullery maid alongside Becky, a Black girl her age who lives in the attic and isn’t spoken to by anyone.
On the surface, A Little Princess seems like a harmless children’s fable about how all little girls are special and good wins in the end. However, the way the film addresses poverty is deeply troubling. Sara is a character who survives through sheer serendipity. The circumstances that lead to her freedom returning at the end aren’t really because of her own actions but through a matter of chance. In the end, she brings Becky along with her lifting her companion out of poverty, and they go off to live in England or India, presumably happily ever after. A few scenes earlier in the film create dissonance with this ending that really got under my skin.
Sara sees the suffering Becky must endure as a Black child who is also poor. She has her humanity stripped from her with the rule that she not be directly spoken to, only orders barked from Minchin. Sara witnesses Becky’s living conditions in the attic and hears from the little girl about losing hope until she heard Sara’s fantasies she told the other girls. There’s definitely something to unpack about Black people only having hope given to them in the form of a white savior, but that’s still not the thing that got under my skin. It’s definitely a problem but not the big one.
Later, Sara sees a chimney sweep get chewed out and left without payment by Minchin. We can see in Sara’s eyes she empathizes. Another moment has her given money by a boy on the street who thinks she is a beggar. The little girl rushes to a nearby bakery and purchases a treat. Sara glimpses a mother and her daughters selling flowers on the street and feels terrible for them. She gives the food to them instead. We see what a giving person she is even when she has so little. But then let’s go back to that ending. Sara has her wealth restored and leaves New York City for parts unknown to resume living her life of luxury. Do you see my problem with this?
For all the acknowledgment Sara gives to the poor when she finally reverses her lousy fortune, she only extends charity to a single person, Becky. Minchin ends up a chimney sweep being bossed around by the boy she cheated earlier, and the audience is meant to be please that the headmistress has ended up there. But think about that for a moment. The film suddenly presents being poor as justifiable punishment for people who are mean to you. But the whole rest of the picture, the poor were presented as those to be pitied and have charity extended to them. My personal reading of the film is that it doesn’t seek to communicate that the poor can be helped. I definitely put myself on the far left spectrum of politics, and this film reads like a typical centrist liberal take on poverty. You should feel bad when you see poor people suffering, but in the end, there is nothing you can materially do to help them, save maybe adopting one child.
We know that Sara and her father have what is implied to be a vast amount of wealth and so they could do something. I expected they would buy the school and turn it into something to help the poor. Nope. They leave. Sara will forget about what she saw, only focus on how she and Becky are “princesses.” This is the refrain that got under my skin. I have no problem with children who want to have regal fantasies, but when she tells Becky she is a princess too, it falls flat. That’s great, Becky can imagine she is a princess, but she is blocked due to her skin color, gender, and class from escaping a lifetime nightmare. The film circumvents that by having Becky be chosen to escape. But what about all the other Beckys in New York City at the time? I guess they have to hope a little rich girl comes into their lives and likes them.
I think the themes of the picture are incredibly murky and don’t stand up to more in-depth scrutiny. Will a child analyze it this deeply? Probably not, but children do search for meaning in the media they consume, and this movie has the potential to leave kids really confused and possibly down the wrong path. It is an incredibly technically beautiful movie, but any examination below the surface left me feeling incredibly unsettled.