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 impending ball.
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 comedy.
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 huge star.
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.
©2001 by Dustin Putman