Girls who grow up reading—and adoring—Frances Hodgson Burnett generally have fierce loyalties about her oeuvre. They are passionate about A Little Princess and have no truck with The Secret Garden, or they venerate The Secret Garden and shrug off A Little Princess. Those who regard valiant "princess" Sara Crewe as a kindred spirit and were hoping for something more authentic than the 1939 Shirley Temple version of the children's classic will be gnashing their teeth to nubs at this new adaptation. It's Annie by way of Isabel Allende.
Matthews is a fanciful little girl living in India at the start of World War I with her adoring widower father (Cunningham). But when Cunningham, an army captain, is called to battle he decides to deposit his daughter at the New York City boarding school his late wife attended. Matthews is exasperated by the rigidity of the headmistress (Eleanor Bron) and lonely for her father, but quickly wins over the other students with her good fellowship and her ability to conjure marvelous bedtime stories. Matthews's inner resources are put to the test when she is told that her father has died in battle, leaving her penniless—and dependent on Bron. The movie takes pointless liberties with Burnett's story in period (1914 rather than the late 1800s), setting (New York rather than London), characters, dialogue, plot twists and theme, in the process obliterating the novel's Victorian charm. What is left is a sometimes mystical tale of identically dressed girls skittering down corridors and scheming against a comic-strip martinet. (G)