The Good: Decent acting, Interesting characters, Charm factor
The Bad: Very predictable plot and themes.
The Basics: Far more fun than my rating might suggest, The Princess Diaries pairs Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews in a family-friendly fairy tale about a girl who discovers she is a princess.
It is a rare thing that I sit down and watch movies where the intended demographic is the eight to seventeen females, but for Anne Hathaway, I find reasons to make an exception. It is only because I am a bit of a fan of the works of Anne Hathaway, then, that I sat down and took in The Princess Diaries, one of her early cinematic endeavors and arguably the production that made her a household name for most of the United States. With her wholesome looks and actual ability to act, Hathaway erupted into the collective unconscious as one of the greatest talents of her generation, even if the movie was a pretty silly, predictable fairy tale of sorts.
The Princess Diaries gets a generous seven in my rating system. Objectively, this is a fairly average film brought up by decent acting and effectively milking the viewer with its charm. It might well be one of the best films for young people in recent memory, but it is still very predictable and utilizes a few too many conceits of movies for young people (like giving Mandy Moore the opportunity to sing).
Mia Thermopolis is an outsider at her private school in San Francisco who dreams of her first kiss and yet is so shy that she throws up rather than give an oral presentation in front of her public speaking class. She spends her days being run over by her socially conscious friend Lilly and doing her best to blend in or go unnoticed. One day, her paternal grandmother comes to visit her in San Francisco with news that turns her world upside down; her father was the crown prince of Genovia, a small European nation on Spain's border. With his death, Queen Renaldi calls Mia into service as the rightful heir to the throne and the fifteen year-old girl decides to give being a royal a trial run.
Mia's life is then split between keeping her secret at school, made more difficult after she gets a makeover, and being prepared by Renaldi to assume the mantle of being a princess with lessons in etiquette, politics and Genovian customs. But soon Mia's secret is out and the boy she has pined for at school notices her, ostensibly to glom onto her fame. Mia is faced with several decisions that illustrate her changing priorities as she makes the transition from schoolgirl to princess.
The Princess Diaries is pretty much the classic fantasy virtually every girl has at one point or another in their lives; the desire to be transformed from plain to princess. Given how classy and established Anne Hathaway has become since, it is almost hard to imagine how well she pulls off plain. Anne Hathaway convincingly plays Mia as a disheveled, bumbling schoolgirl who is suddenly thrust into the world most girls only dream of. What the film illustrates quite well is how impractical such a transformation would be for virtually anyone who actually is a common girl.
Moreover, The Princess Diaries is packed with charm and it is decent at illustrating consequences to the actions of the protagonist. When Mia is outed, she begins to see that coming from a royal bloodline has responsibilities, not just perks. The "fish out of water" aspect of a girl going from anonymous to a public figure is handled well with humor that will reach all audiences. The makeover of Mia may seem more obvious now - given that it seems much harder to hide the natural beauty of Anne Hathaway rather than bring it out - but it is handled quite well. Almost unrecognizable with her bird's nest hair and squinting at the outset of the film, Mia's transformation is exactly what fairy tales and girl's dreams are made of.
But not lacking in entertainment for adults, The Princess Diaries is smart enough not to make the transformation easy. Instead, Mia's instant reaction is to run from her destiny and this creates an interesting, if predictable, character arc for her. As well, it provides the story with a necessary aspect of a mentor and that comes in the form of Queen Renaldi, who is performed by Julie Andrews. Rather incredibly, this is actually the first film I have ever seen with Julie Andrews, but it is easy to see why she is lauded as a master of her craft. She lends a dignity and humanity to Renaldi and knows the precise balance to play in each scene.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of The Princess Diaries for adults is reveling in the subtext of the relationship between Queen Renaldi and her head of security, Joe (played by Hector Elizondo). Just as Renaldi becomes the mentor for Mia, Joe serves as a sounding board for Renaldi's thoughts and ideas and that she relies upon his counsel at key moments is refreshing and deeply human. But the relationship between Mia and Renaldi dominates the movie and Andrews and Hathaway play off one another perfectly. Andrews manages to cede some of the stage to her young costar and Hathaway holds her own opposite the venerable actress. The two use each scene they are together to explore a different emotional resonance and the film works because Mia is not simply learning how to be a princess, Renaldi is learning how to be a woman again and not just a queen.
For all of the enjoyable practical elements that turn the traditional fairy tale into something much more realistic - especially Mia's reluctance - The Princess Diaries is still remarkably predictable and follows a very obvious series of conflicts and resolutions that lead Mia to learn her valuable lessons and become a responsible adult. The thing is, the film is also a teen movie with unrealistically good looking guys and girls, all of whom are privileges and most of whom are blandly young. Mia deals with cliques and pines for the jock as opposed to the good guy who is clearly interested in her. As a result, there are scenes with parties, snobs and a musical number with Mandy Moore, who plays one of Mia's opportunistic peers.
What The Princess Diaries does best, though, is remind viewers just how fun such universal fantasies as the rags-to-riches story can be by both challenging and presenting that story. The reluctant or unfit princess-to-be makes the transformation that much more incredible and enjoyable and the movie certainly is intended to remind viewers of all ages that anything is possible.
The acting in the film is good, but the cast is loaded to make it a sure-fire win in that department. Hathaway has great on-screen chemistry with everyone (save, ironically enough, her male lead). It is especially noteworthy that Hathaway gives costar Heather Matarazzo, who plays Mia's best friend Lilly, dominance in the scenes where Lilly is being pushy. Hathaway appears to be a gracious actress who is able to let others take a scene when it is appropriately theirs to take.
In the end, there is nothing really bad about The Princess Diaries other than that it is completely obvious. Still, this is the stuff our collective unconscious is built upon and it is pleasant to consider Anne Hathaway joining such greats as Julie Andrews there.
For other Disney live-action works, please check out my reviews of:
Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time
The Last Song
Alice In Wonderland
Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End
Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe
Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl
For other film reviews, please visit my index page!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.