I was 10 when Alfonso Cuarón's A Little Princess came out in 1995. I remember loving it for a variety of reasons (rag curls, drop-waist dresses) but the main one was that it felt magical — it was the type of movie I lived in for hours after it finished. I still remembered it with the same fondness up until a few days ago when I watched A Little Princess for the first time as an adult.
It is quite possibly the saddest movie I have ever seen. (How did we ever make it through this film as little girls without suffering huge emotional damage?)
Here, a comparison of how you felt about the movie as a kid vs. the things you think as a grown woman. I think you'll find that there's weirdness on both ends.
1. Then: All girls ARE princesses!
We open in India in 1914 where the young Sara Crewe is living out the world's most idyllic childhood. Within minutes, the theme of the movie is blatantly presented: "All women are princesses. It is our right." As a child, you believed this. It made you feel special.
Now: You wonder whether this is a healthy movie for women.
OMG, feminism. You confuse me. I want to say that it's not right to push the princess paradigm on young girls and that as kids, we were all probably given an overdose of it. Despite the fact that Sara's definition of girl royalty is all inclusive (even her nemesis, the snotty Lavinia, is a princess), and it's what keeps her strength alive, I feel bad about still wanting to be a princess. This is probably a problem.
2. Then: You wished your dad was Captain Crewe.
I'm hoping that it's normal to have fantasies of your parents being different people. It probably had more to do with imagining a totally different life. But as a child, Captain Crewe seemed like the ideal father. Without a mother, all his attention was on Sara. He loved her more than anything. He gave her everything she wanted.
Now: You are reminded of how much you love your actual father.
This moment — Sara and her father's goodbye — makes me so emotional, I can't even go too much into it. But all this makes me think of is that now is the time we have left with our parents. What will it be like when they're gone? What memories will we hold on to?
Also, I am now attracted to Captain Crewe.
3. Then: You romanticized becoming an orphan.
After seeing this movie, my make-believe play often revolved around me being an orphan and living out of a cute little cabin in the woods. There was something disturbingly alluring about the idea of being parentless — maybe you'd get special attention (like Sara's classmate, Lottie, who loses her shit over her dead mother frequently), or a house of your own.
Now: This is the saddest thing you could ever imagine.
I don't know how Sara wasn't just completely consumed with grief. Seeing this situation now is simply terrifying. It literally makes me anxious to think of the powerlessness of Sara with no money and no relatives.
4. Then: Miss Minchin was a wicked, wicked witch.
Miss Minchin. The head of the school who keeps Sara as a servant out of "charity." As a child, you could only see Miss Minchin as a terrifying villain. True, this is a lady with a heart made of dog doo, but...
Now: Miss Minchin is still a raging biotch, but way more complex than you ever realized.
The image above shows Miss Minchin moments after Sara has screamed at her about all girls being princesses. It's the last thing Sara says that makes this moment particularly difficult for Minchin: "Didn't your father ever tell you that? DIDN'T HE?" As a child, you never thought that Miss Minchin was repressed; that she maybe had a terrible childhood. (Not that that's an excuse.) There's another thing — Miss Minchin keeps Sara on as a servant out of charity, and says Sara's caused her extreme financial losses. I guess this whole thing does put Minchin in a tough position. What would it take for her to sustain the costs of keeping Sara on as a student?
5. Then: You didn't question Becky's situation.
She was the school's servant girl and there was no backstory on how she got there, nevermind that all the attention was on Sara anyhow.
Now: What kind of America is this?
Everything about this is so wrong. No child should have to do this.
6. Then: Sara's escape attempt was her only option.
This was terrifying as a kid, not only because it's obviously super dangerous, but also because it made me believe that anything bad you did could wind you up in jail. Forever.
Now: Did it really have to come to this?
OK, so, I don't know much about theft laws in 1914, but can you call the police on a little girl for stealing back her own property? (That she didn't actually take herself.) It seems a little dramatic to call in a half dozen cops. Also, never in a thousand years would anyone survive this.
7. Finally, Then & Now: Still one of the most dire, heartwrenching, and triumphant things you've seen on a screen.
Remember this amazing scene? Captain Crewe has been living next door to the school, wounded in battle, but plagued by amnesia. He doesn't even recognize Sara at first, despite her begging him to remember. But then, conveniently, at the very last minute, he remembers everything. An orphan no longer.
This just goes to show you that even though your childhood movies may be supremely messed up, dark, and disturbing...they also still retain their magic.