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'Princess Diaries'

Royal fluff: 'Princess Diaries' is a modern-day Cinderella story full of holes

Friday, August 03, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

So you're, like, this teen-age girl in San Francisco who hates her hair, her klutziness and the teasing she gets from the popular kids at school. One day someone tells you, to your astonishment, that you're an honest-to-God descendant of royalty and, with a little training, you can be a princess helping to rule your own country. Would you turn down the gig or would you immediately start measuring rooms in the palace?

 
 
'THE PRINCESS DIARIES'

RATING: G.

STARRING: Julie Andrews, Anne Hathaway, Hector Elizondo.

DIRECTOR: Garry Marshall.

Critic's call: 2 1/2 stars.

   
 

It isn't that simple for Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway), our modern-day Cinderella in "The Princess Diaries." She lives with her mom (Caroline Goodall), an artist, in a funky converted firehouse in one of the world's very cool cities. Mia's grandmother turns out to be queen of Genovia, a place in Europe we glimpse only at the very end of the film. But judging from how things operate in the country's San Francisco consulate, this seems a rather minor-league monarchy.

If we are to believe Queen Clarisse (Julie Andrews), the entire country will collapse if Mia doesn't become princess -- the line of succession stops with her. If that's the case, why would Mia have been left with her mother in America, unaware of her true status? And why, once her identity becomes known, is she allowed to continue attending her private school without any bodyguards?

Why didn't her father, the prince, remarry and produce more heirs -- the most important obligation of any royal? Why is the country's annual independence ball, one of its most important events, held in one of its American consulates? Why does the queen allow her head of security, Joseph (Hector Elizondo), such familiarity? Why does almost everyone in the place, including the foreign dignitaries, appear so frumpy?

All right, maybe San Francisco looks good in comparison. But then we have to start wondering about Mia. When we first see her, she's wearing the uniform of her private school, which is dorky enough. But she also has such impossible hair that brushes break off in it. She wears glasses so ugly, only a shortsighted person would wear them. She can't speak before an audience without throwing up. In short, she is the very embodiment of the raging mass of insecurities that is adolescence.

Here's the proof. When we see her after school in her part-time job at a gym for rock climbers, she is perfectly relaxed and, sans glasses and uniform, quite attractive both in appearance and personality. What, did the Jekyll and Hyde juice wear off?

These are just a few of the many quibbles engendered by "The Princess Diaries," a G-rated piece of Disney fluff aimed mostly at newly pubescent females, who probably will identify with Mia's frustrations and thrill to her transformation from gawky duckling to gorgeous babe. Of course, in real life there's no way that her hair would ever turn from steel wool into silky strands. And when the "new" Mia is unveiled, she looks so much like a glossy fashion model that we may wonder how they hid the lobotomy scars.

"The Princess Diaries" was adapted by screenwriter Gina Wendkos from a novel by Meg Cabot. The director, Garry Marshall, seems to have a Henry Higgins complex of his own. He took Matt Dillon from rags to riches in "The Flamingo Kid." He showed Goldie Hawn how the other half lives in "Overboard." Most famously, he transformed Julia Roberts from hooker to happily-ever-after in "Pretty Woman."

Anne Hathaway bears a slight resemblance to Roberts in the later scenes of "Princess Diaries," especially when she breaks into a wide-mouthed smile. She's not used to resembling an ungainly girl, judging from her strained attempts to do so in the early scenes of the film. Andrews hits the right notes as Queen Clarisse, formal even when she's trying not to be. Elizondo is the one character sure of himself and therefore indispensable, guiding Mia through the shoals as he did with Roberts' character in "Pretty Woman."

What I liked best about the movie was the seemingly authentic awkwardness of Mia's friends (Heather Matarazzo, Robert Schwartzman and Patrick Fleuger) set against the insufferable haughtiness of the pretty and popular kids (Erik Von Detten and singer Mandy Moore play the most prominent ones). I also enjoyed the quirky flavor of San Francisco that pervades the movie, even though only exteriors were shot there.

What I liked least was the sloppiness regarding details and the formulaic nature of the enterprise. Even in the post-Diana period, shouldn't princesses seem more special? Or is it enough to sell teen-agers the hope that, someday, their bliss will come?

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