In films for girls, dads dote, moms die and viewers weep


Each summer, Hollywood affirms its belief that girls will see boy movies, but boys will not buy a ticket to a girl movie.

This season's example is "A Little Princess," the retelling of Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel about the spirited daughter of a wealthy English army officer, who triumphs over his disappearance during World War I and her brutal descent into poverty.

The story, first filmed in 1939 as a vehicle for Shirley Temple, languished for seven years while Hollywood's finest suggested that Sara Crewe be rewritten as a boy or that some kind of 8-year-old male love interest be introduced for her. They stopped short, apparently, of suggesting that Sara befriend a killer whale or a failing baseball manager instead of Becky, the poor serving girl.

Hollywood would much rather back junior guy movies such as "Mortal Kombat" and "Batman Forever," or unisex box-office bait such as "Casper," "Free Willy II" and "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," all of which follow "A Little Princess" into air-conditioned comfort this summer.

When I took four young girls to see "A Little Princess" one rainy Sunday afternoon, the theater was packed, and I wondered why Hollywood cared what sex bought the tickets. However, my panel of experts noticed that the only males in the audience were grandfathers, fathers or brothers too little to protest. There was not a prepubescent male in the house.

"A boy might like this movie," said Amanda, 11, "but he'd never admit it."

"Boys never go to see movies that girls star in," said Jessie, 9.

"That's because they're afraid their friends will see them," said Joanna, 8.

So, what we have are chick-ette movies. Preteen versions of the kind that your date will see with you, but that your husband will be too tired to see with you.

"Mostly the girls in movies that boys like are tomboys and wear jeans," said Jessie.

"Mostly a boy movie has killing and gross stuff," said Sarah, also 9.

"A girl's movie has more feeling, usually sadness," said Amanda.

The sadness in "A Little Princess" was measured by the tears the girls and I shed. Sarah and Jessie cried when Sara called on her dead father from the filthy attic to which she had been banished. The girls cried again when Sara was torn shrieking from her amnesiac father by the police, and again when he suddenly recognized her.

They were happy to be sad, happy to show it.

"That way, the movies make you feel real," said Amanda.

Boy movies are usually packed with adventure and poor taste. This summer's "Operation Dumbo Drop" appears to be 90 minutes of GI Joe action and elephant bathroom jokes, and I bet it's a hit.

Girl movies, such as "Miracle on 34th Street" or "The Secret Garden," often celebrate the inner life of children. Over ice cream, the girls easily recited the wisdom Sara Crewe taught, and learned.

"Miss Minchin didn't want to believe anything Sara said about her," said Jessie. "But after she left Sara's room, her face showed she knew Sara was right."

"If you believe in magic and wish hard, anything can come true," said Sarah.

"Sara didn't care about possessions when she was rich," said Amanda. "And even when she was poor, she saw people worse off than her and gave what she had away."

"Boys would never get that," said Joanna.

I cannot protest the fact that movies such as "A Little Princess" can only be made as a nod to girls and an exercise in exquisite production design. I can do the math. There are twice as many kids as there are girls.

But what is getting a little tiresome is the role of grown women in these movies. They are either dead or scary.

Everybody's beautiful and saintly mother dies, off-screen, during childbirth, just as Sara's did. And the stepmother or schoolmarm or sea witch, or whatever, who remains is something right out of a child's version of hell.

Sara's tormentor has a streak of gray hair the envy of Cruella de Ville, and nearly hisses when she speaks.

And heroines such as Sara Crewe are left with dim or doting fathers who treat them, well, like princesses.

"Dads buy you what you want," said Jessie, explaining the truth of Sara's belief that "All girls are princesses."

"Mothers only buy you what you need, like blouses for school."

* Or tickets to girl movies.

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