Why ‘A Little Princess' Was the Most Beautiful Movie of Your ChildhoodLaura Donovan

Gravity was one of my top movies this Oscar season, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that its director Alfonso Cuaron had worked on another favorite of mine: A Little Princess. If you were a ‘90s kid as well, you probably saw it in elementary school, but chances are, you didn’t realize just how incredible it was back then. Nearly 20 years after its release, I’m still in love with this movie, but I have a significantly stronger attachment to it now for reasons that’ll soon become obvious. As much as I adored Disney cartoons, Harriet the Spy, The Sandlot and numerous other classics from childhood, I truly believe A Little Princess was the best by a long shot. Here’s why it trumps the rest.

10. It teaches children that adults can be bitter and resentful

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When Sara Crewe starts boarding school at Miss Minchin’s Seminary for Girls in New York, she’s immediately met with hostility and envy. Sara comes from a privileged background, which Miss Minchin disdains and uses against the little girl. Though I never really experienced anything similar growing up, I know a lot of people who were mistreated by authority figures for similar reasons. The other girls at the school are well off, but Sara is the only one who questions the system and Miss Minchin’s policies, setting her apart as a free thinker.

9. It’s innocent

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Before Sara’s dad leaves her at the boarding school so he can fight in WWI, he says that her doll Emily runs around the bedroom whenever people are out of sight. In one scene, Sara steps away from her room for a second and then rushes back to peak in on Emily. “Gosh, she’s fast,” Sara says, reminding me of a time when I believed my own Barbies and stuffed animals could come to life Toy Story-style when I wasn’t around. Having lost her mother and baby sister, Sara knows about suffering and darkness, but that doesn’t mean her faith is all gone.

8. It’s also tragic

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When I first saw A Little Princess in 1995, I couldn’t fully process the devastation Sara feels when she’s told her father has been killed in the war. I was lucky: Boarding school, mean grownups and war weren’t a part of my relatively stable upbringing, so I couldn’t relate to or understand the heartbreak Sara endures. It would be another ten years before I’d face the nightmarish loss of a parent, but at seven, I just didn’t get it. I did, however, see that Sara was feeling lonely and jaded by everything, and it’s important to tell kids that life isn’t always going to be kind to them.

7. It’s quite possibly the biggest tearjerker of any kids movie

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Believe it or not, I don’t cry  often, but this movie turns me into a hysterical, blubbering, red-faced 1-year-old every time I play it. The Lion King, Bambi and even Air Bud contain gutting moments, but A Little Princess has like ten: when she goes to the attic upon learning her dad is dead and wails for him in a circle she’s drawn, when he says goodbye for the first time, when he reads her letter in battle, when he’s alive after all but doesn’t remember her, when his amnesia goes away and he runs after her so she isn’t arrested and taken away forever … okay, that’s not ten, but it certainly turns on the waterworks.

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Yes, it’s over-the-top, yes, it’s even a little cheesy for me, but who cares? This movie has heart. When I first saw it as a 7-year-old, all I could think about was Sara’s spunk, unbreakable friendship with Becky and courage to stand up to a sad spinster. Seeing the movie after my dad’s death is a different and traumatic experience, and I’m not sure there’s anything more heartbreaking to watch than the powerful, wildly emotional reunion between Sara and Capt. Crewe at the very end. You kill me, Alfonso Cuaron. You.kill.me.

6. It tackles race during a time of inequality

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A Little Princess takes place in the early 1900s, so it’s not too surprising that the boarding school servant is an orphaned black girl named Becky. After one character says no one talks to Becky because “she has dark skin,” Sara outright asks, “So?” The girl responds, “Doesn’t that mean something?” Not at all, and Sara knows that from the start.

5. It has magic

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There’s so much magic in this story, I don’t even know where to start. For one, Sara thinks her doll can come to life and likes to roam the boarding school when nobody’s looking. Sara and Becky also awake to a room full of food and gorgeous blankets the night after Miss Minchin punishes them with starvation. Ram Dass, the mysterious Indian man next door (and his adorable monkey) were apparently behind the feast, but how he set everything up while Sara and Becky sleep is unclear. It’s also crazy how Capt. Crewe’s amnesia disappears when Ram Dass and the monkey look him straight in the eye as Sara is being hauled away by authorities. There are no answers, but you don’t really need them with this movie. It’s so good on its own, you don’t notice you’ve suspended your reality.

4. It pays homage to India

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Capt. Crewe moves Sara from India to New York to attend boarding school, where she dazzles the other girls with an ongoing fairytale about Prince Rama and Princess Sita. During a dark and cold winter in New York, Sara reflects on the warmth of India, giving hope to herself and Becky that one day things will improve for them. Though he doesn’t say a ton, Ram Dass proves to be an instrumental character in the story, enabling Sara and her father to live happily ever following two devastating experiences for the both of them.

3. There’s a bully

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When Sara first arrives at the school, most of the other students are in awe of her glamorous lifestyle abroad. It helps that Sara doesn’t define herself by her riches, but by the love of her father. Most of Sara’s classmates are intrigued by her story, but there’s one jealous classmate, Lavinia, who takes it upon herself to spread rumors about Sara and mock her eventual servitude. For better or worse, harassment is a huge part of growing up, and A Little Princess prepares audiences for this unfortunate aspect of youth with the bullying subplot.

2. Sara thinks for herself, won’t tame her imagination and never stops dreaming

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Miss Minchin doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Sara’s fantasies and vivid stories, but Sara ultimately refuses to give up on life or all her amazing dreams. Impoverished or in a lap of luxury, Sara is a princess, and the same goes for every woman and girl out there, even the cynical Miss Minchin. Sara is only temporarily brought down by the supposed loss of her dad, but once she realizes she can find companionship in Becky, she goes back to her imaginative self and starts to love the whole world again, the way her father unconditionally loved her.

1. There’s a strong father-daughter relationship

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Like Tina Fey, I strongly believe a good father figure goes a long way in life. This is true for Sara in A Little Princess. Sara is the tough, bright-eyed character we all know and adore because her dad encouraged her imagination at a young age, and she brings that same love to the people around her. Sara helps the needy, gives advice to a reluctant adult looking to move on from Miss Minchin’s school and enchants the other students with fairytales, all because she had a father who would’ve given her the world. She’s lucky to have him, and the world is lucky to have such an extraordinary little princess.

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What else did you appreciate about the movie? Share in the comments section!

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  1. AGREED!

    Gina Vaynshteyn | 3/17/2014 06:03 am
  2. Let’s face it, most of the credit goes to Frances Hodgson Burnett. She wrote The Secret Garden as well, and that movie was another 90′s favorite of mine. I hope you read the books, they are classics.

  3. My brothers and I, loved this movie so much (The Secret Garden too). My oldest brother bought both films and still at his “old age” of 32 he watches them from time to time. I’m waiting for the opportunity to watch it with my nephews.

  4. I forgot all about this film but it was my absolute favourite as a child! The book was lovely, too.