'Little Princess' is a charmer in the Shirley Temple mold

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Thank goodness for little girls -- especially in movies. Not Disney cartoon characters in bikinis, but brave, clever, strong little girls. Such is the character of Sara Crewe in "A Little Princess," the enchanting new adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel.

The movie dares to tread where Shirley Temple once did. And Burnett purists need not attend: The setting and time have been changed slightly from the book. But put all that aside, approach it anew, and you'll find a movie full of wonder and magic.

Liesel Matthews stars as the poised and pretty Sara, whose idyllic childhood in a fairy-tale-filled India is interrupted when her British father (Liam Cunningham) is called away to duty in World War I. Sara must find a new life in cold New York, straining against the rigid ways of Miss Minchin's School for Girls.

Her imagination is her most powerful asset, winning her friends among the students and even cheering up poor serving-girl Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester). It helps that she's also the most pampered girl in the school, thanks to the generosity of her devoted father. But Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron), an evil-stepmother-type, is awaiting her chance to deflate the plucky Sara, who represents everything she is not.

When it seems the worst has happened, and Sara is suddenly penniless, Miss Minchin banishes her to the attic with Becky, doomed to scrub floors and play only with the mice. Sara questions her belief in the power of magic, and it's only through her friendship with Becky that she rediscovers her own power and makes her leaky garret feel like a palace. The ending is impossibly happy (and predictable), but it's lovely.

Alfonso Cuaron, who directed the Mexican AIDS comedy "Love in the Time of Hysteria," is making his American feature-film debut with "Princess." He imbues it with sumptuous color in Sara's world, contrasted with the grim, eerie trenches of the war. The images are hyper-rich, exaggerated as a child might see them. Cuaron has an exquisite sense of timing and parallels, using coincidence -- which often weakens a plot -- to his advantage.

He's also working with a fine script by Richard LaGravanese, who cast a spell with "The Fisher King," and co-writer Elizabeth Chandler. Patrick Doyle, whose score for Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" still gives this filmgoer goose bumps, supplies the India-flavored music.

The performances are good, too, and Liesel Matthews as Sara is a pro -- although her accent isn't the crisp British one it should be. A stage actress until now, she's an Illinois native.

(Incidentally, the movie will enhance the quality resume of producer Mark Johnson of Baltimore Pictures, the force behind many a Barry Levinson film.)

The comparison between "Princess" and Agnieszka Holland's 1993 version of "The Secret Garden," another Burnett classic, isn't as obvious as one might think. Both are magical, but "The Secret Garden" seems as if it could happen and therefore is a stronger film. "A Little Princess" is drenched in unlikely fantasy, but it's a pleasure to watch.

"A Little Princess"

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Starring Liesel Matthews, Liam Cunningham, Eleanor Bron and Vanessa Lee Chester

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated G

***

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