The Princess Diaries (2001)

2001, Walt Disney. Directed by Garry Marshall. Julie Andrews, Anne Hathaway, Hector Elizondo, Heather Matarazzo, Mandy Moore, Caroline Goodall, Robert Schwartzman, Erik von Detten.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?C+
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? -1
Age
Appropriateness
?Kids & Up

External Ratings

MPAA ?G USCCB ?A-I

Content advisory: Depictions of kissing and flirting; references to divorce.

By Steven D. Greydanus

The target audience for director Garry Marshall’s G-rated chick flick The Princess Diaries, starring Anne Hathaway as a gawky girl badly in need of a makeover and Julie Andrews as the benefactress who provides it, hasn’t heard of Pygmalion. They haven’t even heard of My Fair Lady, which had Andrews herself on the receiving end of the makeover (on Broadway). But some of them will know Pretty Woman, Marshall’s previous retelling of the Pygmalion story. And nearly all of them will be familiar with at least one of the other recent versions (Never Been Kissed; She’s All That).

In other words, even young girls who have never heard of George Bernard Shaw already know the outlines of the story being told once again in The Princess Diaries (not that the marketers left anything to chance with their tell-all campaign). And that, of course, is the point.

Everyone knows going in that Hathaway’s frizzy hair, horn-rimmed glasses, pratfalls, slouch, and puckered expressions aren’t going to hold her back for long. (Indeed, it takes a formidable effort to suspend one’s disbelief and accept that they hold her back at all. Hathaway manages to be suitably awkward in the medium shots, but every closeup blows the girl’s cover by revealing her cover-girl beauty. Casting the gorgeous 20-year-old "Get Real" actress as an 15-year-old ugly duckling is about as plausible as Jennifer Lopez playing a wedding planner who can’t get a date or Drew Barrymore playing a late bloomer who’s Never Been Kissed.)

Everyone knows that whatever problems and heartaches our young heroine may face in her life, things will infallibly start to turn around once Julie Andrews arrives. (After all, that’s what Julie Andrews does, isn’t it? The young girls in the audience may not know Pygmalion, but they’ve got to know something about Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, if only by cultural osmosis.)

Everyone knows that the heroine’s inevitable transformation will lead to initial success, but then her newfound popularity will be a cause of complication and confusion as she sorts out old loyalties and new opportunities. No one will be surprised there is a False Beau (Erik von Detten) who is a popular jock with short blond hair that Mia (Hathaway) has a terminal crush on but who pays no attention to her until her transformation; as well as a True Beau (Robert Schwartzman) with shaggy dark hair who works in an auto shop that also doubles as a studio for his rock band. Or that that Mia lets down her best friend (Heather Matarazzo) by blowing off an appearance on her cable TV show to go on a dream date with the False Beau, before she figures out that she really belongs with the True Beau. Or that the stuck-up cheerleaders and cruel jocks will inevitably get their comeuppance.

Even small details may seem strangely familiar, as Marshall mines his own TV past for material. Mia and her best friend have a secret-handshake-with-spitting oath-of-silence ritual that’s lifted directly from Laverne & Shirley. And Mia’s romantic fixation on getting a special kiss like in "old movies" where the girl’s "foot pops" (i.e., she bends one leg backward at the knee with her foot off the ground) comes straight out of an episode of Happy Days: Richie gets a kiss with a movie actress whom he’s seen bend her leg just that way when kissed in her movies, and he hopes that his own kiss will have that same effect on her. (I don’t know if Marshall actually directed that particular episode of Happy Days, but the leg-bending thing didn’t look quite right to me back then, and it doesn’t look quite right here either.)

The Princess Diaries, in short, is a reassuringly known quantity: Those in the market for what it has to offer will find it pleasantly agreeable, and those who aren’t won’t be in the theater in the first place.

Reading the Diaries

Based on the teen novel by Meg Cabot, Marshall’s film tells the story of a young girl growing up in San Francisco without any inkling that the man her mother married and then divorced was a royal son of Genovia, an imaginary country in Europe ("between France and Spain"). It seems that at the time of the divorce Mia’s father and family "agreed to keep their distance" from Mia so that she could "have a chance at a normal childhood" that would be — and I quote — "free from emotional complications."

The story attempts to soften Mia’s parents’ divorce by explaining that Mia’s father was unexpectedly catapulted to the head of the line of succession when his elder brother renounced the throne in order to "join the Church." (The Church never having had a habit of requiring heads of state to renounce their positions as a condition for receiving baptism, perhaps the movie meant to say that he joined a religious order. Another possibility is that Genovia might be, like England, an officially Protestant nation with laws disqualifying Catholics from the succession to the throne; though in that case it’s hardly likely that the sovereign of such a nation would speak of "the Church" when referring to the Roman Communion.)

Then, however, Mia’s father (whom she has known only by the occasional extravagant gift) dies, and her paternal grandmother (Andrews), also a complete stranger, comes to San Francisco to pay a visit. That’s when Mia learns that Grandmother is actually Queen Mother, and Mia herself is the next heir to the throne.

Andrews, of course, brings class and comfort to the proceedings; her Princess 101 lessons comprise some of the film’s liveliest moments. Hector Elizondo (TV’s "Chicago Hope"), whose exact function in the Queen’s retinue I was unable to determine but who seems to be on remarkably informal terms with his sovereign, is not only unflappably urbane and stylish ("You look like Shaft!" one of Mia’s friends blurts at him), but avuncular and surprisingly funny as well. He plays straight man to Hathaway’s slapstick; as she flails with her wardrobe in the back seat of the limo he’s driving, he murmurs sagely, "I’ve never tried to put on pantyhose, but it sounds dangerous."

It’s all reasonably well-done, if overlong and predictable, and touchingly old-fashioned in its sincere belief that every little girl still wants to be a princess. Afterwards, though, I found myself mulling over the general themes of the film, and the message — or messages — that young viewers might be likely to take away. What’s the moral of the story? Here are a few plausible candidates, some worthwhile, some otherwise.

  1. It’s what you are inside that really matters.
  2. As well as being very pretty.
  3. Believe in yourself. You may feel awkward and ungainly now, but you can become more and do more than you think.
  4. Even if you have Anne Hathaway drop-dead gorgeous looks, you still might be in desperate need of a radical makeover.
  5. If you don’t have Anne Hathaway drop-dead gorgeous looks, what hope is there?
  6. Straight hair is attractive; unruly hair is unattractive.
  7. Those who are popular and good-looking are often cruel to the shy and awkward.
  8. This includes all jocks and cheerleaders and anyone who fits in. But if you are in a rock band or have your own cable show, then you are a sensitive individual.
  9. When parents decide to get divorced, perhaps both of them have everyone’s best interests at heart.
  10. Just because your dad hasn’t seen you in the last fifteen years doesn’t mean that he’s a bad egg, or that he doesn’t love you, especially if he writes you an inspiring note.

And so forth. Is this the story for your little princess? You’re the parent; you make the call.

P.S. — The original novel by Meg Cabot already has a sequel: The Princess Diaries, Volume II: Princess in the Spotlight. If the movie makes any money, I don’t have to tell you what this means.

Tags: Broken Family Films, Comedy, Family, Romance

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