The Princess Diaries
Screenplay : Gina Windkos (based on the novel by Meg Cabot)
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Anne Hathaway (Mia Thermopolis), Julie Andrews (Queen Clarisse Renaldi), Hector Elizondo (Joe), Heather Matarazzo (Lilly Moscovitz), Mandy Moore (Lana Thomas), Caroline Goodall (Mia's Mom, Helen), Robert Schwartzman (Michael Moscovitz), Terry Wayne (Clark), Erik von Detten (Josh Bryant)
Anyone who considers him- or herself hip will probably hate The Princess Diaries because it is one of the most willfully unhip movies to come along in quite a while. Yet, its very unhipness is part of its charm--retro as it is--and, while it has all the irony and innovation of an ABC Afterschool Special with bigger production values, it is not entirely unwatchable, even if you end up hating yourself when it's over for having liked it more than you would ever admit to anyone.
The movie's premise is that gawky 15-year-old Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway), an outcast at her posh San Francisco private school because of her frizzy hair, glasses, bad posture, and awkward social skills, is actually the princess heir of a small European country called Genovia (apparently, it's somewhere between France and Spain). This is, of course, essentially a reworking of the Cinderella myth in modern guise (yet again), but that doesn't make it any less square. After all, most 15-year-old girls these days probably fantasize more about being on MTV's Total Request Live and getting to meet Carson Daly than being a princess.
Mia's father, whom she has never known, has died, thus Mia is the sole blood heir to take over Genovia (there's a strained and utterly unnecessary subplot about how, if she doesn't accept the throne, a mean, squat little baron and his ugly wife will gain control of the country). Mia learns the news from her grandmother, Queen Clarisse Renaldi, played with royal uptightness by none other than Julie Andrews. Credit should be given to Andrews that she manages to make something of a human being out of Queen Clarisse, even though she's poorly written in one-dimensional terms.
Being royal heir to a European country has its benefits and its drawbacks for Mia. For one, she is given a royal make-over by a snooty European stylist, who straightens her hair, plucks her eyebrows, and dolls her up with cosmetics. Of course, like all movies that involve ugly ducklings being turned into runway-ready beauties, Anne Hathaway is obviously a beauty to begin with, something that is readily apparent even if the filmmakers try to hide her assets behind unkempt hair and thick lenses.
The make-over is the aspect of the movie that some socially minded critics have taken to task the hardest, railing about the damage that will be done to impressionable young girls who see the movie and walk away with the message that outer beauty is the only thing that matters. This point has a certain validity, especially considering the historically sexist treatment of women in the movies.
However, while Mia's make-over certainly conforms to the guidelines set forth in every major fashion magazine from Cosmopolitan to YM, thus infuriating those who see such publications as a representation of capitalistic repression and the destruction of individuality, it is hardly the most important aspect of the movie. Further, it is humorously critiqued within the story as Mia is ashamed when she first goes to school with straightened hair because she doesn't want to look like she's trying to suck up to those above her in the high-school social hierarchy (personified in a meanie cheerleader played by pop star Mandy Moore). Of course, there are those who argue that the way she looks before the make-over is perfectly fine, which is a correct observation, even if it is also based on a particular social designation of beauty (in this case, the alternative grunge look of slouching posture and Doc Martens).
Both pre- and post-make-over, Hathaway, in her feature-film debut, is all eyes and smile, and there's not a small resemblance in style and charm to Julia Roberts, who got her major break in Pretty Woman (1990), directed by Garry Marshall, who also helmed The Princess Diaries. Hathaway, despite the silliness of her role, imbues Mia with a immense likability, even when she's doing dumb things like fawning all over the high-school heartthrob Josh Bryan (Erik von Detten), when it's obvious that he is the biggest dork in the movie.
Mia has other problems, including the disdain of her best friend, Lilly (Heather Matarazzo), another social outcast who becomes jealous of Mia's newfound popularity. Mia is also caught between her long-standing crush on Josh and Lilly's low-key musician brother, Michael (Robert Schwartzman), who is obviously the more worthy teen. The paparazzi make life difficult for her, as well, even though it is one of the movie's strained contrivances that the press would really care this much about the royal family of a tiny country.
The movie really starts to stumble near the end when photographs of Mia and Josh smooching are splashed all over the front page of newspapers, and the ensuing scandal about her behavior means that she has to renounce being heir to the throne (in the age of sexual dalliances by everyone from Prince Charles to President Clinton, are we really supposed to think that this situation would be taken all that seriously?). Mia is forced into making several hard decisions, and it is here that the movie gets a bit heavy with its theme about doing the greater good. Mia wants the throne of Genovia not for power and popularity, but because it means she can finally make a difference in the world. It's a good message, and it's too bad those who are so distraught over her glamorous new physical appearance chose to dismiss it.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick