A rare G-rated, live-action Disney movie that could have almost been filmed
in the 1960s as a starring vehicle for Hayley Mills ("Pollyanna," "The Parent
Trap"), Garry Marshall's "The Princess Diaries" evokes a time when so-called
"family films" were completely harmless for all ages, as well as absent of
bodily function humor. It's almost refreshing, really, to see a movie with no
coarse language or objectionable material that is able to retain every bit of
the effectiveness it might have had with a little bit of both of these things.
15-year-old Mia Thermopolis (bright newcomer Anne Hathaway) is a
frizzy-haired wallflower who is terrible at public speaking and isn't a part
of the cool crowd at her private San Francisco high school. Aside from her
infatuation with a jock classmate (Erik Von Detten), Mia is perfectly
comfortable with her no-name existence, and even has a best friend in the
equally unconventional Lilly (Heather Matarazzo). When her distant
grandmother (Julie Andrews), whom she has never seen before, pays a visit,
she discovers that she is Queen Clarisse Rinaldi of the European country of
Genovia. Even more, as the only living heir to her now-deceased father, Mia
is set to become Princess of Genovia. Not exactly the royal type, Mia is
forced to endure training on how to act and look the part, and must decide
whether she wants to extend this honor as a lifetime title by the night of an
Yet another take on the classic story of "Pygmalion," "The Princess Diaries"
treads in well-worn territory and, thus, is neither surprising nor original.
It is a charmer, however, and coasts on this simple quality for the entirety
of its overlong 115-minute running time. About as innocent as a beach movie
starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, the film is good-natured and
sprightly, with just enough energy to also work as a particularly funny
Veteran actress and singer Julie Andrews, in her first starring role in over
a decade, may add a touch of class to the proceedings as Mia's loving
grandmother, but it is Anne Hathaway, in her film debut, who is the real star
of the show. Hyped by director Garry Marshall as the next Julia Roberts (who
shot to fame herself with Marshall's 1990 romance, "Pretty Woman"), Hathaway
has a natural talent for both physical comedy and human drama, and the
personal issues she struggles with are realistically brought to life. A
genuinely likable presence, Hathaway definitely has what it takes to be a
Surrounding Andrews and Hathaway with varying degrees of success are a large
supporting cast of familiar faces. Hector Elizondo (1999's "Runaway Bride"
and Marshall regular) has a nice, little role as the Queen's tender-hearted
limo driver, while Heather Matarazzo (best known for 1996's "Welcome to the
Dollhouse") makes an impression as Mia's friend, Lilly. Pop singer Mandy
Moore, as Mia's stuck-up classmate, Lana, makes Selma Blair in the recent
"Legally Blonde" look like an absolute angel in comparison. Moore does fine
with what she's given, and even has a fun scene in which she gets to sing,
but her character has zero redeeming qualities.
Where "The Princess Diaries" falters is in the mixed messages it sends out to
viewers. After Mia's obligatory makeover scene, her long, frizzy hair is
trimmed down and straightened, and she replaces her glasses with contacts.
After "becoming" beautiful, her popularity at school skyrockets and she is
meant to look more like a Princess. Mia's makeover doesn't work, because (1)
it doesn't stay true to her character's admirable, individualistic attitudes,
and (2) it falsely tells impressionistic young audience members what the
word, "beautiful," is supposed to mean. This entire plot point should have
been extracted in the early screenplay stage, and the movie would have been
stronger for it.
Flaws aside, "The Princess Diaries" is an enjoyably featherweight piece of
fluff that does a good job of creating a motion picture exemplary for all age
groups. Glossy and picturesquely photographed by Karl Walter Lindenlaub,
painting San Francisco as a beautiful place to visit, the movie is
entertaining, light-hearted, and maybe even a little wise. For all of its
missteps in trying to portray what is conventionally attractive, it does have
a lot to say about staying true to one's beliefs and dreams. Not exactly an
innovative notion, but a good one, all the same.
Copyright © 2001 Dustin Putman