Looking Back At A Little Princess, 20 Years Later

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
When A Little Princess hit theaters in May 1995, Disney had already been flooding the cultural consciousness with a steady stream of princess-themed movies for several years. The heroine of Alfonso Cuarón's live-action adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1905 novel wasn't like Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, or Pocahontas, though. Sara Crewe carried with her the message that all girls were princesses, as in special, unique, and important. Her cohort were young girls searching for their identities in Victorian America, not lost mermaids chasing true love on land even though they belonged under the sea. 

A Little Princess remains a beloved film to this day for that very reason. When we saw its 20th anniversary was approaching, we knew we wanted to discuss our feelings about it, both then and now, for the site. What follows is a dialogue between two adults who were once precocious, imaginative kids, thankful to see themselves mirrored onscreen in the form of Sara Crewe and her, um, crew. Join us as we wax nostalgic about A Little Princess

Lauren: What was your impression of the movie when it came out in 1995?

Neha: I was SO MAD that the end was different from the book’s ending. Not cool. Still mad.

Lauren: I was already fixated on the Victorian era because I had recently acquired Samantha Parkington, an American Girl doll from that time, and read all of her accompanying books. I was excited to see the Victorian childhood experience I’d read about portrayed on film, especially with a female heroine. I was a very cool child! Did you like the message that "all girls are princesses" as a kid?

Neha: Oh, yes.

Lauren: Agreed, because “princess,” here, means unique, special, and important. As a kid who didn’t always feel like she fit in, and was also not in line to ascend any thrones, this was a crucial message for me. What about the movie stuck with you after you watched?

Neha: For me, it was her ability to best the Miss Minchins of the world and get her way in the end (in a quietly dignified way, of course). I feel like what reallllly resonated was that I also often felt like I was smarter than the adults around me, and consistently fantasized about showing them up sometime soon…

Lauren: I always wanted to be able to use rags to curl my hair, but it never worked. On a more serious note, I loved seeing a girl with an active imagination that drew people to her and also helped her out of difficult situations. Did you think Miss Minchin was the living worst? Yes or hell yes?

Neha: HELL YES.

Lauren: Could you imagine taking away all of a young girl’s possessions the very instant she found out her beloved father had died, and she was all alone in the world? Tell us who hurt you, Miss Minchin, and how we can end this cycle of emotional trauma.

Neha: I rewatched the VHS tape over and over. I also still have the worn copy of the book that I’ve reread every year since I...learned to read. How about you?

Lauren: I’d fast forward to my favorite parts of the tape. I also rewatched it last Sunday, but on HBO Go (just wanted to clear up that I don't have a VCR anymore).

Neha: Did you notice Alfonso Cuarón's direction more?

Lauren: I want to say yes because it’ll make me sound like a fancy person who knows things about film, but it looks the same as ever. It does seem to be more artfully directed than, say, The Baby-Sitters Club movie, though, which HBO has also been airing a lot recently. I also had to Google all of the cast members to find out where they are now.

Neha: I have to stop typing now so that I can do this.

[Ed. note: We'll be running a piece about where the cast members are now later this week.]
Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
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Lauren: This is going to make me sound like a horrible person, but Miss Minchin also seemed a bit more sympathetic when I rewatched as an adult. She was still unnecessarily cruel, but I also sort of respect her being a savvy businesswoman at a time when most women were meant to be seen and not heard, as the Angel in the House. On another note, do you have any idea how Captain Crewe afforded that lifestyle as a soldier?

Neha: I think he was a member of the aristocracy. They were all soldiers at the time, right?

Lauren: Um, sure. It was really refreshing to see a piece of entertainment aimed at girls that deals with bullying, racism, imagination, and classism, with a strong female heroine. Is this a feminist movie?

Neha: It doesn’t have to be feminist to be inspiring for strong women, although in this case, the ideals it’s putting forward — strength, doing what is right, etc. — are a little stoic but not anti-feminist, I don’t think.

Lauren: It’s such a 2015 question. I think what's most surprising, in retrospect, is how hard it is to believe a studio actually spent money on a movie about brave and empowered girls aimed at that same type of viewer. It’s so cynical to say this, but you really don’t see many movies about unique and interesting girls of Sara and Co.’s ages being made and marketed to females anymore. Why was 1995 more progressive for female-oriented movies than 2015? This movie is a Bechdel Test-passing-palooza. Can we also relate this discussion to the fact that we have a new little princess on our hands?

Neha:
HA. Of course you went there. I mean, I feel like there has to be a tie to princess fantasies, Disney princesses, etc. This is one of the few cases in which an orphaned princess isn’t rescued by a man...

Lauren: I like where your head’s at. Charlotte, please let A Little Princess serve as your template for the future.
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