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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Myth, Magic and Emotion Stir Bold Remake of Victorian Tale

Although 98.7 percent of all those involved in the creation of "children's movies" seem to believe such items must be saccharine, silly, simplistic and stupid, every now and then a film will come along to give the lie to that tiresome credo.

"A Little Princess," now available on video in Moscow, snuck through the world's theaters last year with barely a ripple, swamped by the big, pompous barge of Disney's "Pocahontas." It offered no big-name stars, no pop-song score, no massive marketing-merchandising scheme to pulverize the public -- nothing, in short, of any value except that one commodity which not even the biggest budget in the world can buy: enchantment.

The movie is based on the Victorian-era novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who is perhaps best-known for "The Secret Garden." It was made into a cutesy "classic" by Shirley Temple in 1939, but the truth is, the 1995 version far outstrips Miss Temple's tinkly triumph, and the clunky prose of the original text as well. Little-known Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, whose only other film effort was the sex comedy, "Love in the Time of Hysteria," has presented a gorgeous fantasy that nonetheless rings with genuine emotion.

Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews) is a young girl living a life of wealth and wonder with her soldier-father in India. Sara's Indian companions entrance her with tales of the mythical Ramayana -- and it is here that Cuaron and his artistic technicians are at their best, as he takes us directly to the stylized world of myth, a realm of fantastically vibrant colors and vibrant passions. The mythological scenes are used sparingly throughout the film, but this only makes them more enticing, and they haunt the imagination long after the movie is over.

Then comes the Great War, and Sara's father is called away. He takes the motherless girl to a posh boarding school in New York City. (This is a bit of a plot stretch -- the original is set more plausibly in London -- but the filmmakers apparently thought giving it an American setting might help at the box office). The parting of father and daughter is deftly done. Having already established the emotional depth of their relationship in few sure strokes, Cuaron has no need to overplay the scene: It is quiet, moving, painfully real.

The boarding school is run by the severe Miss Minchin, played by Eleanor Bron. Bron's performance is a subtle marvel. The character, as written in the book, presents an almost irresistible temptation for stagey "evil witch" histrionics, but Bron, while putting across the full measure of required malevolence, brings unexpected depth to the role. We are not shown the motives for her overpowering need for control, nor the inner barbs that prompt her cruelty, but she makes us believe that such things do exist: She is a human being, wrenched somehow from her better nature. And this makes her far more frightening and effective than the usual cartoon of evil served up in children's movies.

Sara bears the full brunt of this evil when her father is reported dead and she loses her financial status -- the only thing that had shielded her somewhat from Miss Minchin's ill favor. As an act of "charity," Minchin keeps Sara on at the school, but as a servant, sent to live in the dismal attic with a black servant girl. This is intended as the gravest of insults, but of course it provides Sara with a needed friend. Yet even this potentially sentimental, heavily PC situation is handled with tact and naturalness.

The rest of the story is taken up with Sara's battle with Miss Minchin, fought with the only weapons the young girl has at hand: the power of her imagination and her love for her father, her belief in his return. The tale is told briskly, with flashes of wit and brief, bright eruptions of rich fantasy. To say the ending is happy is to give away no surprise; but what is surprising is that the expected resolution feels so earned, with neither story nor viewer manipulated.

Ultimately, the movie depends on the performance of young Liesel Matthews. She must negotiate the twin pitfalls of appearing too precious and lordly in the early going, or too pitiful and plucky after the plot turns. She acquits herself remarkably well, bringing an attractive sense of intelligence and control to the part.

"A Little Princess" is itself the perfect example of the transforming power of imagination that is its theme. Any child would be entranced, and enriched, by it; and most adults would find it a pleasant, substantial entertainment.

"A Little Princess" can be rented at Video Express, located in Post International at 1/2 Maly Putinkovsky Pereulok. Tel. 209-9168.