This isn’t a particularly original or insightful observation, but I think it’s sad that so many of the shows/movies that Disney aims at impressionable young girls encourage them to drink the Cult of Celebrity Kool-Aid, by focussing on protagonists who achieve their happy endings as either pop-stars or princesses (has anyone ever tried to combine the two?). Clearly it’s a profitable strategy, but is it an ethical one? Why not a 21st Century take on Doogie Howser, M.D., with a teenage girl studying to become a qualified doctor? Hmmm? Ah well… for now we’ll just have to endure vapid lifestyle-porn like The Princess Diaries (2001).
For those who don’t know, this aspirational comedy stars Anne Hathaway as ‘Mia Thermopolis’, an American high school girl with frizzy-hair, bushy-brows and butterfingers, who discovers that she is the secret heir to the throne of a fictional European country called Genovia! This surprising revelation is heralded by the arrival of Mia’s fraternal grandmother, the Queen dowager ‘Clarisse Renaldi’, played by Julie Andrews… who takes up residence in the local Genovian embassy, and sets about transforming the ungainly “ugly duckling” into a seemly, sophisticated swan. Obviously this is a fantasy, and not meant to be taken too seriously, but I’m afraid the backstory underpinning this whole enterprise stretched my suspension of disbelief way past breaking point. Genovia is apparently important/wealthy enough to maintain a large embassy in a major American city, and the media clearly think it’s a big deal when they’re finally tipped off to Mia’s provenance… so why didn’t anyone outside of his immediate family notice that the (recently deceased) prince had hooked up with an American woman fifteen years earlier, then married and conceived a child with her! A child that he was still financially supporting, in fact! I can buy the royal family being able to bury a secret affair… but a secret family!? Nuh-uh. I’m calling shenanigans on that. To really invest in a character’s fate, you have to understand what they stand to gain, and what they stand to lose by the choices they make, but Mia’s predicament here is so ludicrous, so rarified, and so poorly defined, her story became the emotional equivalent of watching a carnival parade go past: Pleasant enough while it lasts, but rather remote, and instantly forgettable. Apparently the story was loosely adapted from a popular series of tween “chick-lit” novels by Meg Cabot, and presumably they go into far more detail than the film-makers were able to here… although I can’t vouch for them making any more sense!
Hathaway is a naturally gifted comic actress, so it was fun to watch her going through the motions, even if her character was a total cipher… and since this was her big-screen debut, I can imagine contemporary audiences being genuinely blown-away by how breathtakingly beautiful she looks after her “princess” makeover. Andrews is an old-hand at this sort of rot, but she gives a sturdy performance as the stern-but-sympathetic matriarch… and there are some very sweet scenes between her and Héctor Elizondo, who plays her head of security (and potential paramour?). Mandy Moore appears as ‘Lana Thomas’, the school’s bullying ‘Queen Bee’, and I must admit I did laugh at her appalled reaction to the reveal of Mia’s glossy new hairdo… I also enjoyed her performance of the song “Stupid Cupid”, even if it ate up screen-time that would have been better spent contextualising the Genovian Crisis, dammit! Heather Matarazzo did her best as Mia’s BFF ‘Lilly Moscovitz’, who pays half-hearted lip-service to the notion of political consciousness, but the character was such a shrill nag I was hoping the two of them would split for good after their big row. No such luck. Her onscreen-sibling ‘Michael’, a car mechanic/musician who also happens to be Mia’s potential love-interest, is played by Robert Schwartzman… who, rather annoyingly, is just as cool and charismatic as his older brother, Jason. Oh, and Sandra Oh gets a couple of funny scenes as the gushing, obsequious ‘Vice Principal Gupta’… but sadly, they are few and far between. For my money though, the real star of this movie was San Francisco herself… such a gorgeous city, and so beautifully photographed! I was particularly excited to see Mia and her Grandma visit the Musée Méchanique, just so I could yell “I’ve been there!” at my TV screen. I even have the faint old-timey photo-strip to prove it.