2003 was a banner year for fairy tales. A major new translation by Diana and Jeffrey Frank appeared of "The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen." Matt Damon and Heath Ledger were signed on to star in "Brothers Grimm," (which unfortunately stalled in production). And Anne Hathaway filmed "Ella Enchanted" at the same time Julia Stiles worked on "The Prince & Me." Something must have been in the air, because even I got into the act, developing a travel course on "European Fairy Tales & American Culture" that would take me and a group of college students to Denmark and Germany a year later, about the same time as those films premiered.
Oddly enough, the 18 young women on my trip who were the same age as Stiles' character ended up sitting in their hotel rooms a bunch of the time, instead of exploring the wonders of Europe. Why? Because "The Prince & Me" was playing out in real life. His Royal Highness Prince Frederik of Denmark was marrying a commoner—Mary Donaldson of Tasmania—and having experienced the pre-wedding excitement in Copenhagen, my students huddled around their German hotel-room television sets. "We're SO into the whole happily ever after thing," one of them laughed.
It would be easy to blame it on some sort of sinister, capitalistic brainwashing, given all the years of Disney princess films, toys, and accessories that my students have been exposed to. But what about the Danes? While we were in Copenhagen, the entire city was giddy as my American college students over the prince's impending nuptials. Giant red hearts made of flowers were set up in the Radhuspladsen, the city's main square, and in smaller squares that formed little oases along the city's famed Stroget pedestrian shopping street. Bus signs and humungous billboards offered congratulations, and Tivoli Gardens, one of the world's oldest amusement parks, was decorated with pendulous hearts that hung from garlands here and there. The wedding was all anyone could talk about—even the guys. The Danes love their ceremonial Royal Family (they have no real power in a democracy), and the ones we met seemed tickled that their prince was marrying a commoner. It was a reaffirmation that fairy tales can still come true, for them and for us.
All of which is to say that "The Prince & Me" could have had a wide appeal. The surprise is that the script and Martha Coolidge direction are so play-it-safe formulaic that the film lacks fairy-tale luster. It's as predictable as an Elvis movie—without the music. Pre-teen and teen-aged girls will love it, while everyone else will be mildly entertained and keep score of all the lapses in logic. But the main problem is conflict—or rather, the lack of it. In that commoner-for-a-day classic, "Roman Holiday," Audrey Hepburn has the same internal conflict as the prince in Coolidge's film, wanting nothing to do with the duties of station that make the crown feel like a bejeweled albatross. But there are plenty of other conflicts in that film. Gregory Peck, as the journalist who finds the overmedicated princess and ends up accompanying her on a spate of plebian partying, writes a story in secret and is conflicted over whether to file it with his paper or let love win out. There are minor skirmishes with his editor, Italian police, paparazzi, landlords, and others, but the biggest conflict comes from our wondering whether the two unlikely lovebirds will ever get together. With "The Prince & Me," there's never any doubt.
Stiles plays bio-major Paige Morgan, an apple-cheeked Wisconsin girl intent on going to the best medical school and becoming a doctor. Her family runs an organic farm in Manitowoc just south of Green Bay, and that family is nothing but supportive. On the other side of the Atlantic, there's Prince Edward (Luke Mably), whom we first see drag racing and being kissed by two beautiful groupies, shades of Elvis. After seeing a commercial for "Wild College Girls, The Girls of Wisconsin" he tells his parents he wants to go to school at the University of Wisconsin, where Paige just happens to be a student. Does the royal family go ballistic? Nope. There's a thirty-second discussion, and like Eddie Murphy in "Coming to America," the prince is off to find his booty, accompanied by a major domor (Ben Miller, as Soren) sworn to keep his identity secret.
(Logic-lapse #1: What university is going to allow a man-servant who irons shorts and cooks eggs benedict on a hotplate to bunk with his master and new roommate? At least in "Coming to America" Arsenio Hall's character took care of the prince at a private apartment!)
In the title sequence, Paige looked through a microscope, but the Prince, who sees her tending bar at the university Rathskeller, eyes her through the bottom of an empty beer glass. And when he asks her to lift her top for him, the way he saw girls happily oblige on the video, he gets doused with selzer. Now THIS is the girl for him. The pursuit is on.
(Logic-lapse #2: How likely is it for Paige to be the only student in chemistry without a lab partner, or for our undercover prince to add a course typically hard to get into and come late and end up with Paige for a partner?)
As irresponsible as Eddie can be, he knows his Shakespeare and ends up tutoring Paige, and his fixation with her leads him to apply for a job at the Rathskeller so that he can work alongside her. Things come to a romantic boil when Paige's friend (Elisabeth Waterston) goads her into inviting Eddie to spend Thanksgiving with her at the family farm.
(Logic-lapse #3: Ever been north of Milwaukee the end of November? It's brrrrrrrr-land, with snow a very real possibility. But because of shooting budget Coolidge says she ignored the fact that trees wouldn't have leaves at this time of the year and people wouldn't be sitting around in light-weight shirts drinking Cokes outdoors. There could still be leaves on trees in "early fall," she says in her defense. Message to Martha: Thanksgiving comes in LATE fall.)
What could have been an interesting conflict between Paige's brothers (Zachary Knighton and Steve O'Reilly) and this stranger from a different country is passed over by Coolidge. There's a quick put-down or two, but then the boys fall in line and the prince quickly tells them he can soup up their lawn mowers to make them fast enough to beat anyone in the annual race—no "yeah, right," and no overprotective brothers trying to sabotage the would-be suitor. Same with the parents, who seem pretty relaxed over their daughter sharing intimate space with someone they suspect is more than a friend. Sure, they run an organic farm so they must be progressive, but still . . . . And how do you make something as offbeat as a "Ben-Hur" style lawnmower race unexciting?
(Logic-lapse #4: Bored paparazzi in Denmark who miss the Prince's antics somehow end up in Wisconsin. How did they find him? And how did they turn up in the "stacks" of the library right when Paige and Eddie were in the throes of passion, him stripped shirtless? At least in "Roman Holiday," the photographers captured them at a public brawl that drew attention to themselves!)
When the prince returns, so does Paige, and she's swept onto His Royal Highness's horse and into a life that finds the royal family just as accepting as their Wisconsin counterparts. But forsooth, even Shakespeare saw the value in having parents object to young love. Why didn't Coolidge pursue it here? By the time the ending comes, the boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl with modifications to both of their lifestyles formula arrives with no surprise at all, and with surprisingly low energy throughout.
Basically, this is one fairy tale that could have used a little more magic.
Coolidge shot with two different film stocks, so don't worry about adjusting your picture if the Wisconsin scenes have colors that are warmer and more saturated, compared to the Denmark (i.e., Prague) shots, with their cooler bluish tint. It was done deliberately to help viewers keep the settings straight. I reviewed the widescreen version, but there's a fullscreen version as well. The widescreen is "enhanced" for 16x9 televisions, and the picture is sharper for the Denmark sequences and more gauzy for the Wisconsin ones. Nothing to gripe about, though.
The film is presented in Dolby Digital English and French 5.1 and English Dolby 2.0 Surround, with English and Spanish subtitles. There aren't an abundance of ambient rear-speaker sounds, but when sounds do emanate from the rear you take notice. What that means, I'm not sure.
This is going to sound unkind, but the Coolidge full-length commentary suffers from the same lack of energy as the film. It doesn't help that most of her remarks are interpretive—which is something that any one of us could do, talking about Paige's situation and what she's thinking or going through at such-and-such a point in time. There's not as much in the way as anecdotal or technical information as we've become used to with these commentaries. Coolidge filmed the interiors and some exteriors in Prague, using only a few famous, recognizable exterior shots of Denmark (such as the entrance to Amalienborg Palace—which she referred to as "Annanborg"—Frederiksborg Palace, or the colorful old harbor area at Nyhavn. At one point she identifies a scene where Stiles is on a balcony-style walkway and Mably on the sidewalk below, washing restaurant mats, and says that Stiles was in Prague when she did her part of that scene, while Mably was in Toronto. That's fascinating, of course, and as with the rear speaker effects when you get something like that you wish Coolidge would share more such stories. Same with her story about how Mably and Miller would roam the towns in which they were shooting, pretending to be the real prince of Denmark and his "actuary."
The featurettes on "The Lawnmower Race," "The Look," and "Inside the Fairy Tale" are also a bit dull and overlapping. It's mostly Coolidge talking with clips from the film and behind-the-scenes footage, delivered, again, without much energy and without much in the way of interesting content. Same with the gag reel. The best extra is really the eight deleted/extended scenes, one of which Coolidge talked about on the commentary. In this scene (which seemed long to me in the film), Eddie watches Paige dance while she cleans tables after-hours at the Rathskeller, and the camera alternates between her footwork and his fascinated face. Coolidge says she wished she could have used the extended (even longer) scene, which shows you the difference between her directorial vision and my own sense of the film. But it's interesting to note that difference, and fun as well that Coolidge included an alternate ending, one that's more feminist and less fairy-tale. Rounding out the extras: a trailer. Nice to have, but I always wonder if people are like me and watch the trailer first, then the movie, then the extras. For me, it's entertaining to compare how a studio packaged the film and how the film really plays itself out.
I have to say that this film was borderline for me. Whether I give a film less than a 5 or more is determined by a simple question: Would I watch it again? In this case, as predictable and low energy as I found "The Prince & Me," the answer was "yes." Why? Because of Julia Stiles. Stiles is an honest-to-goodness presence on-camera, even when you get the feeling that she's not acting up to her potential. To be fair, she and Mabry make the best of the script they're given, and there are moments in the film that are genuinely charming. As a prince and his commoner bride wannabe, Mabry and Stiles are believable, even if the script is less so. It's the kind of material Elvis would have felt right at home with, the kind of PG (we're talking mild, parents!) diversion that will stoke the fairy-tale fires in the hearts of adolescent and high school girls. Not the rest of us.