In 1995, Warner Brothers produced a remake of the 1939 film “The Little Princess” and renamed it “A Little Princess.” The remake stars Liesel Matthews as Sara Crewe, a young British girl with a close relationship with her father, an army captain, before and during World War 1. When Captain Crewe goes to war, he puts Sara in a girl’s boarding school in New York City run by the bitter and stern Miss Minchin (Elinor Bron). When news comes about Captain Crewe’s death in battle, Miss Minchin removes the penniless and orphaned Sara from her classes and keeps her on as a servant.
A Little Princess opens in India, where Sara leads an idyllic life with her father, loving friends and their many servants. Sara leads a vivid fantasy life, telling the epic Indian Ramayana story to her friends. The story tells of Prince Rama, who must fight the evil Ravana to gain the freedom of his wife, Sita. Sara’s story pops up in the movie a few times, and the film uses fantasy sequences with special effects to tell the tale. In the 1939 version, Sara is played by Shirley Temple and the film starts when Sara arrives at Miss Minchin’s boarding school. It feels like Shirley is just walking on a set rather than entering a new and mysterious period in her life.
In the 1995 version, Miss Minchin emerges as an anti-muse, a character determined to snuff out all imagination and surprise, and replace it with regimentation. She’s less silly and more hurtful than the Miss Minchin (Mary Nash) in the 1939 version, although the film offers no backstory or explanation for her mean behavior. Apparently, it takes quite a bit of money to send young girls to Miss Minchin’s seminary, and you’d think the parents would hear about all the depravities suffered by their spoiled children.
The director of the 1995 movie, Alfonso Cuarón, presents a much darker vision of the story, which comes from a Francis Hodgson Burnett novel published in 1904. Of course, Burnett did not include anything in the novel about World War 1; the war Captain Crewe goes off to is the Boer War. The 1939 movie features a lot of military finery on the London streets shown in glorious Technicolor. We never see the war in the Shirley Temple movie, while Cuarón shows the wounded on the battlefield. The lighter and more whimsical 1939 version even features a few incongruous dance numbers between Shirley and Miss Minchin’s vaudevillian brother Bertie, played by the inimitable Arthur Treacher.