Friday, August 3, 2001

Diplomacy in action

Movie: The Princess Diaries

Posted on Fri, Aug 3, 2001 at 4:00 AM

**1/2
Our Rating: 2.50

Four things you need to know up front about "The Princess Diaries."

(1) A comic drama pointedly aimed at a young female audience, it's as slick, professional and bland as anything else Garry Marshall has directed in recent years, including 1999's "Runaway Bride" and "The Other Sister." He doesn't do edgy.

(2) The movie absolutely earns every bit of its "G" rating, no doubt to the relief of parents. This contemporary ugly-duckling tale is populated by a group of high-school kids whose language and behavior are so clean (if not always nice) and nearly devoid of references to contemporary pop culture that the entire story seems to taken place in a time warp. There's even a summer beach-party scene that could have been lifted from a Frankie Avalon flick.

(3) Despite the best hopes of Walt Disney Pictures, which concluded the movie's trailer with a tribute of sorts to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," the title princess isn't a worthy successor to the studio's long line of animated heroines. (Yes, Marshall's film is live-action, but its characters -- particularly a pompous couple in the Boris-and-Natasha mold and an overexcited hairdresser played by an unbilled Larry Miller -- are more than a little cartoonish.)

(4) "The Princess Diaries" benefits from the rule of "location, location, location," particularly its film-industry corollary: When in doubt, shoot in San Francisco. It's all the better to fill out your frame with cutaway shots of cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Anne Hathaway plays swan-to-be Mia Thermopolis (a name only a Hollywood screenwriter could love), a supposedly geeky 15-year-old student at a snooty private school. She's the daughter of Helen (Caroline Goodall), a divorced, pseudo-bohemian painter whose hippie credentials include a long-ago visit to Woodstock. The countercultural cool didn't take with Anne: She plays bass drum in the school ensemble, sings in the chorus, recklessly bumps into strangers, freaks out during debate class, klutzes out when playing sports and generally plays second fiddle to Lilly (Heather Matarazzo of "Welcome to the Dollhouse"), her know-it-all best friend. (Note to director Marshall: For real makeover magic, you should have given the genuinely gawky Matarazzo the lead.)

"My expectation in life is to be invisible, and I'm good at it," moans poor Mia after she learns that her late, long estranged father was actually the king of Genovia, a fictitious country tucked between Spain and France. Mia's mission, as detailed by her prim and proper grandmother, Queen Clarisse (Julie Andrews), is to accept her fate as the sole natural heir to the throne, put on the crown and move into the palace.

There's no doubt as to the choice Mia will make (you did catch the movie's title, didn't you?), so we have little to do but watch the social outcast go through the paces of being transformed into a young woman whose bearing befits her royal station. Marshall applies schlock shorthand to the already clichéd scenario: All Mia has to do is get rid of her glasses, straighten her hair and undergo a bit of eyebrow plucking, and she turns into a veritable supermodel.

And in a plot twist straight out of TV's "The Brady Bunch," she schedules an outing with the school hunk, a date with Mr. Right and an appearance on Lilly's cable program, "Shut Up and Listen," all for the same Saturday night. Misunderstandings ensue. Happiness is in the offing. Questions, anyone?

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