Lodged at a foreboding New York boarding school during WWI, an inventive little girl wins friends with her talent for reciting tales of ancient India, but soons earns antipathy from a frightful headmistress.
This screen adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's second most famous book (after The Secret Garden) flopped big-time Stateside, bowled over by a string of expensive but less competent blockbusters. Which is a shame, because a film as beautifully made and downright enjoyable as this one has true universal appeal.
Having adjusted to a life of luxury in India with her widowed pop, imaginative rich kid Sara Crewe (Matthews) is packed off to an exclusive boarding school in New York after World War I breaks out and Daddy is drafted into the army. After becoming a favourite with the other girls thanks to some surreptitious night-time story-telling sessions, the school fees stop arriving when her father is reportedly killed, leaving the unfortunate Sara to be banished to the attic by wicked headmistress Miss Minchin (Bron) and forced into a life of servitude.
While those familiar with Burnett's book may be a mite peeved by certain liberties taken with the storyline - most notably whisking the setting across the pond from its previous London location - the rest can't fail to be utterly captivated. Mexican director Cuaron casts a magical, fairy-tale glow over the storyline, decking everything, except for a series of stunning day-glo fantasy sequences, in verdant tones, and leaving no sentimental or comic outlet uncharted. The young, largely female cast (especially the appealingly big-eyed Matthews) mercifully manage to transcend the barrier between cute and irritating, although it's Bron's starchy, seething schoolmarm who steals the show.
Soppy and girlish in the extreme, this should keep even the tiniest viewer rapt, while all too many adults may fall victim to an inexplicable bout of eye-watering long before the closing credits.
Reviewed by Caroline Westbrook