You know those cheesy, mostly-inert movies that play on the Disney Channel on a lazy Sunday afternoon? Well, were it not for the clout of director Garry Marshall ("Pretty Woman") and producer Whitney Houston (yes, THAT Whitney Houston) and the prestige of Julie Andrews joining the cast, "The Princess Diaries" would've been one of those lazy Sunday afternoon movies.
"The Princess Diaries" is one of those projects without a single shred of originality in its creation. There are shades of make-over stories old and new--"Pygmalion," "My Fair Lady," Marshall's own "Pretty Woman"--and you've got the star of the Broadway production of "My Fair Lady" (Andrews) to boot. There's a certain gracelessness to the execution, and the movie never knows if it wants to be a comedic drama (think "American Beauty") or a dramatic comedy (think "You've Got Mail").
In the movie, Mia Thermopolis (newcomer Anne Hathaway) is the modern day Eliza Doolittle, the one who has always been at the bottom of the social caste. At school, the bespectacled, frazzle-haired girl must suffer the indignity of being sat on by people who don't even notice her. Enter Clarisse Renaldi, Queen of Genovia (Andrews). Mia's father passed away, and it turns out that no one ever told her that she was a member of the royal family of Genovia. After all, her mother wanted her to have a normal life, free from the burden of being royalty. Now, Queen Clarisse wants Mia to prepare for a life of royal duties.
Since Mia is the sole heir to the Genovian throne, the pressure is on for her to accept her duties as the next ruler of the small European country. From there on out, we witness Mia's transition from the ugly duckling to the swan. Through this progression, Mia threatens the social position of the school social queen, Lana (teen pop singer Mandy Moore). Mia steals Lana's "too-cool-for-school" boyfriend, and she also replaces Lana as the center of their private school's attention.
Of course, the bad comes along with the good. Mia's sudden fame strains her friendship with Lily (Heather Matarazzo, "Welcome to the Dollhouse"). Mia also neglects the friendly overtures of the formulaic nice guy. (Don't worry--Michael gets the girl at the end anyway.)
After an embarrassing situation involving the paparazzi, Queen Clarisse's hardened heart leads her to persuade her granddaughter that she is not good enough to be a head of state. On the night of a ball where Mia has to give a formal speech announcing her decision, her plan to run away from home is halted by the discovery of a letter her father had written to her for her upcoming sixteenth birthday. His words inspire her to accept her position in life, and all's well that ends well.
I was amazed by the noticeable amount of laziness that went into writing the script. Perhaps part of the problem could be attributed to the original novel written by Meg Cabot, but you would think that Hollywood professionals would have taken the care to polish their "production guide." Instead, we have to wonder if Genovia will cease to exist if Mia chooses to reject the crown or if a scheming Baron and his wife will assume the Renaldi's royal duties. There's a reference to a "countessa" who turns out to be Bartholomew, a male...and other embarrassments abound.
Julie Andrews returns to the Disney family for the first time since her Oscar-winning performance in "Mary Poppins." Her return to the family-film fold (as well as the movies in general after a botched surgical operation deprived her of the ability to sing) is not as stunning as we may want it to be, but our reverence for her acting remains unmarred by the haphazard feel of "The Princess Diares." Anne Hathaway does a competent job in her first lead role, but hers is not the immediate, star-making performance like the ones delivered by Alicia Silverstone in "Clueless" or Natalie Portman in "The Professional."
The surprise of the film may be pop star Mandy Moore. Although her performance may be on the stereotypical side, her enthusiasm in portraying a predatory cheerleader reveals a potentially fruitful career in acting. And, yes, Moore does a great job singing the cutesy song "Stupid Cupid."
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks pretty usually, fitting the California sunshine of the movie. Curiously enough, nothing looks wet or cold enough in the movie to help the viewer feel as if the story were actually taking place in San Francisco. There are a few transition scenes that look muddy (very odd for a recent movie), and there are some black or white dots that appear periodically. Overall, this is a pleasant-looking transfer.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 English is basically a glorified mono track. The rear surround speakers do just about nothing, and the front left and right speakers jump alive only for music and not to create a wild soundstage. To get a sense of how restricted things are with the sound mix, even a news helicopter that kicks up sand at a beach party hardly contributes to the sound field. The subwoofer shows up to pump a couple of bass notes, but that's about it for low frequencies.
For some reason, the dialogue seems to have been mixed at a lower-than-normal level. I had to re-calibrate my center speaker setting in order to hear the actors without turning up the overall volume of my sound system.
Disney also provided a DD 5.1 French track, English and Spanish subtitles, and English closed captions.
There are some good extras to be found on the DVD edition of "The Princess Diaries." Generally speaking, you'll be struck by the fact that director Garry Marshall seems to be everywhere on this DVD.
"A New Princess" is a behind-the-scenes featurette that shows you some footage from the actual production. There are interviews with a good cross-section of the cast and crew (including Whitney Houston), and we get to see how much fun the filmmakers had in making this movie. They celebrated birthdays, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. They laughed and cavorted their way through the shoot. Actually, I wondered if they goofed off too much instead of fixing the script. (Ouch!)
There are eight deleted scenes, each prefaced and epilogued by a Garry Marshall video clip. He explains why the scenes were cut, and he also discusses how the decisions to cut these scenes led to other edits in the material that was kept for the final product. The scenes do help enhance our feel for the characters' relationships with one another, but they were best left off considering that "Diaries" ran close to the two-hour mark, near-epic length for a family film.
There are two audio commentaries on the DVD. Garry Marshall sits by himself for the first one, and he's an avid talker. He talks and talks, excitedly, about how much fun he had making the movie. He doesn't say much about the filmmaking craft per se, but he does let you know everything that he remembers from the shoot of the scene that is playing before your eyes.
The best extra on the DVD is the audio commentary by Julie Andrews and Anne Hathaway, dubbed "The Ultimate Tea Party." Basically, the two actresses watch the film while enjoying a proper English High Tea session. They compliment each other profusely, and the track ends up sounding like a conversation a bunch of girls would have during a sleepover party featuring "The Princess Diaries" playing on TV.
Finally, there is a smattering of trailers and previews for other Disney products, Myra's "Miracles Happen" music video, and Krystal's "SuperGirl" music video." As seems to be rather standard for Buena Vista DVDs during the past few months, the trailer for the main feature itself is not on the DVD.
A glossy cardboard insert provides chapter listings.
Ultimately, "The Princess Diaries" proves to be a sloppily-made, pale imitation of countless other fairy-tale-esque movies. The story treads on oft-visited territories, and today's sophisticated young viewers may actually want to move on to another movie before adults do. After all, nostalgia runs deep, and Julie Andrews will revive parents' memories of the glory days of "Mary Poppins" and "The Sound of Music."
(Note: There is a Pan&Scan DVD version of "The Princess Diaries," too.)