Due to poor promotion by Warner Bros., the film hardly made back half its budget. However, the film was critically acclaimed and given various awards, such as two Academy Award nominations for its significant achievements in art direction and cinematography, among other aspects of its production.
In the year 1914, Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews) is the kind, caring daughter of Captain Richard Crewe (Liam Cunningham), a wealthy aristocrat living in India. Sara's mother died when she was very young, and she has to leave her beloved childhood home and friends when her father volunteers to fight for the British as an officer in World War I. Captain Crewe enrolls Sara at a girls' boarding school in New York, and instructs the headmistress Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron) to spare no expense making sure his daughter will be comfortable while he is away. He has reserved her the school's largest suite, and gives Sara a special locket of her mother's picture, and a French doll named Emily, telling her that if she wants to talk to him, just speak to Emily and he will hear it. Though she finds the strict rules and Miss Minchin's harsh attitude stifling, Sara becomes popular among the girls, including the scullery maid Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester), for her kindness and strong sense of imagination. She writes constant letters to her father, which are a great source of happiness for him on the battlefield.
Due to a body being misidentified, Captain Crewe is declared dead when he is actually seriously injured and suffering from amnesia, and the British government seizes his company and assets. When Miss Minchin hears the news, she is in the middle of throwing a lavish birthday party for Sara, hoping to extort more money from her father. When Crewe's solicitor arrives and tells her there will be no more money, Miss Minchin is furious. Since Sara is now penniless and has no known relatives, Miss Minchin decides to move her to the attic with Becky to work as a servant where she will report to Mabel (Peggy Miley) at 5:00 AM.
Meanwhile, the elderly neighbor Charles Randolph (Arthur Malet) has received word that his son John, who is also fighting in Europe, is missing in action. He is asked to identify a soldier suffering from amnesia, but he is discouraged to discover it is not John. His Indian assistant Ram Dass (Errol Sitahal) encourages him to take in the man anyway, reminding him that he may know what happened to his son.
Though her life is bleak, Sara remains kind to others and continues to hold onto her belief that all girls are princesses. Sara and Becky later play a chimney prank on Miss Minchin after she scolds a young chimney sweep boy (Jonás Cuarón). Sara even showed sympathy toward Miss Minchin's sister Amelia (Rusty Schwimmer). When her friends later sneak up to see her and are caught by Miss Minchin, she protects them by saying she invited them. As punishment, Miss Minchin locks Becky in her room and assigns Sara to perform both Becky's and her own chores for the next day without anything to eat for both of them. She even taunts Sara over believing she is still a princess. But when Sara stands up to Miss Minchin, saying that all girls (including herself) are princesses despite their miserable lives, she angrily threatens her to be thrown out into the street when seen again with the girls again. After Miss Minchin storms out, to distract them from their hunger, Sara and Becky imagine a huge banquet. The next morning, they wake to find their dream has come true, having secretly been left there by Ram Dass.
Later that night, Amelia sneaks out of the school and runs off with the milkman. When Miss Minchin notices Sara's locket is missing (her friends including Becky had stolen it from Minchin's office the day before), she goes to Sara's room and confronts her in a rage. After she discovers all the finery left from Ram Dass, Miss Minchin accuses Sara of stealing everything and summons the police. With Becky's help, Sara narrowly avoids arrest by perilously climbing over to the Randolph house. Having failed to catch Sara, Miss Minchin and the police arrest Becky for interfering with them. While hiding from the police searching the house for her, she comes across the soldier and realizes it is her father. Captain Crewe, though sympathetic to the girl, does not recognize her at all. As she tries to make him remember, Miss Minchin and the police arrive. Though the headmistress clearly recognizes Crewe, she falsely claims that Sara has no father, and choosing revenge over the truth, commands the police officers to seize her. As the police are about to take Sara away along with Becky, Crewe suddenly regains his memory, with help from the Ram Dass, and rescues his daughter. Miss Minchin angrily walks away in defeat.
Some time later, Captain Crewe has cleared things up with Miss Minchin's superiors and the bank. The boarding school is given to Mr. Randolph, and his efforts make it a much happier place for the girls. The Crewe family's wealth is restored to them and they adopt Becky. Captain Crewe tells Mr. Randolph his son died in a gas attack, giving the man closure. As retribution for her cruelty to Sara and Becky, Miss Minchin seemingly loses her current title and high position and is reduced to a chimney sweeper, now working for the chimney sweeper boy she previously mistreated (who appears to be enjoying his revenge on Minchin). The film closes with Sara and Becky waving farewell to their former classmates as their carriage departs from the school and the family begins their return to India.Liesel Matthews as Sara Crewe, the daughter of Captain Crewe.
Eleanor Bron as Miss Maria Minchin, a cruel and selfish woman who runs a boarding school where Sara is enrolled. She is Amelia's older sister.
Liam Cunningham as Captain Crewe, Sara's devoted widower father.
Liam Cunningham also portrays Prince Rama, a character from Sara's story.
Vanessa Lee Chester as Becky, Miss Minchin's servant who lives in the attic of the school.
Rusty Schwimmer as Amelia, Miss Minchin's long suffering sister.
Arthur Malet as Charles Randolph, a kind old man that lives next door to the school. He is loosely based on Mr. Carrisford.
Errol Sitahal as Ram Dass, Randolph's servant who later befriends Sara.
Alison Moir as Princess Sita, a character from Sara's story.
Lomax Study as Monsieur Dufarge, a French teacher at Miss Minchin's school.
Vincent Schiavelli as Mr. Barrow
Taylor Fry as Lavinia, a vindictive bully who is bitterly jealous of Sara's wealth and popularity.
Heather DeLoach as Ermengarde, a shy, insecure girl often bullied by Lavinia and Miss Minchin.
Peggy Miley as Mabel, a cook that works for Miss Minchin.
Darcie Bradford as Jesse
Rachael Bella as Betsy
Alexandra Rea-Baum as Gertrude
Camilla Belle as Jane
Lauren Blumenfeld as Rosemary
Kelsey Mulrooney as Lottie, a volatile girl at Sara's school prone to tantrums and fits.
Kaitlin Cullum as Ruth
Jonás Cuarón as Chimney Sweeper (uncredited)
All of the tracks were composed by Patrick Doyle. Three of the tracks feature soloists. The "String Quintet in C major Perger 108, MH 187" by Michael Haydn is also used in the film. The film also features the New London Children's Choir.
A Little Princess received critical acclaim from critics upon its release. The film holds a 97% 'Fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 32 reviews with an average rating of 8.2/10, the critics consensus, "Alfonso Cuarón adapts Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel with a keen sense of magic realism, vividly recreating the world of childhood as seen through the characters."
Janet Maslin called the film "a bright, beautiful and enchantingly childlike vision", one that "draw[s] its audience into the wittily heightened reality of a fairy tale" and "takes enough liberties to re-invent rather than embalm Miss Burnett's assiduously beloved story." She concludes:
"From the huge head of an Indian deity, used as a place where stories are told and children play, to the agile way a tear drips from Sara's eye to a letter read by her father in the rain, A Little Princess has been conceived, staged and edited with special grace. Less an actors' film than a series of elaborate tableaux, it has a visual eloquence that extends well beyond the limits of its story. To see Sara whirling ecstatically in her attic room on a snowy night, exulting in the feelings summoned by an evocative sight in a nearby window, is to know just how stirringly lovely a children's film can be."
Rita Kempley of The Washington Post called the film Cuarón's "dazzling North American debut" and wrote it "exquisitely re-creates the ephemeral world of childhood, an enchanted kingdom where everything, even make-believe, seems possible....Unlike most distaff mythology, the film does not concern the heroine's sexual awakening; it's more like the typical hero's journey described by scholar Joseph Campbell. Sara, the adored and pampered child of a wealthy British widower, must pass a series of tests, thereby discovering her inner strengths."
A Little Princess was first released to home video in August 1995.