This review originally appeared on the now-defunct site FamilyWonder.com, which showcased children's entertainment for parents and caregivers.
Title: THE LITTLE PRINCESS
Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
After living a pampered life in India, pretty Sara Crewe goes off to boarding school in England while her father goes to fight the Boer War for his Queen. Though she enjoys the attention of tutor Miss Rose and the handsome riding instructor who is wooing the teacher, Sara dislikes rigid headmistress Miss Minchin. When Sara's father is reported among the dead, the headmistress forces the girl to become a servant and live in the attic.
But sweet scullery maid Becky and a kind-hearted Indian man next door make Sara's life tolerable while she searches for her father, whose death she refuses to accept. Though she gets in trouble for evading her chores, the little princess dreams of a better life as she haunts the veteran's hospital, hoping for a miracle. In the end, her resilience pays off.
Best For Ages:
5-8 - Fans of ANNIE will enjoy this similar tale of a spunky singing orphan.
8-12 - Some pre-teens will be bored by the war story, but others will enjoy the classic children's fable.
12 & up - Fans of Shirley Temple might enjoy seeing her in this more dramatic role; others could find her cutesiness grating.
Educational Value: Many American viewers will learn more about the Boer War from this film than in school. Queen Victoria herself makes a brief appearance. The lives of all the characters are idealized, even the servants.
Entertainment Value: Though not faithful to the famous book on which it is based, the film's tale introduces several entertaining new characters and a witty dream sequence that echoes THE WIZARD OF OZ. The historical parades and postwar celebrations are hard to appreciate in this dreadfully colorized film.
Violence: Wounded soldiers return from the war - and in some cases fail to return. Sara's nasty headmistress threatens to box her ears.
Emotional Intensity: Captain Crewe is lost and believed dead in the war. Reports of deaths terrify civilians. The one kind teacher at Miss Minchin's school is fired for carrying on an illicit romance.
Frightening situations: Miss Minchin threatens to throw Sara out into the street. Sara meets badly wounded men in the veterans' hospital. The police chase Sara to arrest her for stealing while she searches for her father.
Questionable Behavior: Students follow a rigid class system, ignore servants, and behave cruelly towards the less fortunate. Sara dumps a bucket of ashes over the heads of two nasty girls.
Mature Themes: War, poverty, and human suffering as a result of rigid Victorian values.
Racial Insensitivity: The Indian servant from the house next door comes across as cartoonish, with silly exotic accoutrements.
Anyone fondly remembering Francis Hodgson Burnett's novel should try to forget it before viewing this film. THE LITTLE PRINCESS has some good points - beautiful costumes, excellent sets, a dramatic historical backdrop - but Shirley Temple's Sara Crewe can be quite grating. When she's supposed to be suffering, which is often, she's whiny and petulant. When she's supposed to be cheerful, she looks phony, particularly in a couple of ridiculous dance numbers thrown in for her fans.
Sara Crewe is no ANNIE, though Temple's ringlets resemble the musical character's. Even when Sara believes she's an orphan, servants wait on her. Three- and six-year-old viewers who were interested in the fate of Sara's soldier father disliked her tantrums, though they liked the dream scene where Miss Minchin appeared dressed like the evil stepmother from SNOW WHITE. That entire sequence, a cross between The Nutcracker Ballet and THE WIZARD OF OZ (released the same year as this film), works quite well as entertainment but doesn't fit in with the serious themes of THE LITTLE PRINCESS.
Fans of the novel may prefer the 1995 film A LITTLE PRINCESS, which remains truer to the spirit of the book despite a different setting. In both movies, Sara's father survives, making it easier for young viewers to enjoy the magical storyline of a little girl who has everything. Some adults, however, may find themselves relating to Miss Minchin's secret resentment of the spoiled child whose fantasy life is empowered by her great fortune.
Children's Television Reviews