Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) is a frizzy-haired, thick-glasses-wearing high schooler. (And let’s not even get into the traumas that must be incurred by that last name.) She feels awkward and alienated at her private school, frustrated that the boy she likes, a beautiful jock named Josh (Erik von Detten), doesn’t seem to know she’s alive, and miserable that the most popular girl in school, the dominant cheerleader-bitch Lana (MTV teen-talk-show hostess, Noxzema spokesgirl, and singer Mandy Moore), treats her like dirt from another planet. In other words, Mia feels a lot like most girls in high school.
Or so you’re supposed to think. In fact, there’s nothing ordinary about Mia, nothing that remotely resembles most girls in high school, starting with the fact that she lives in an extraordinary San Francisco “space” with her single mom, an apparently independently wealthy artist named Helen (Caroline Goodall). You’re introduced to their amazing former firehouse of a home during the opening credits sequence, under new-girl-on-the-pop-block Krystal’s lively first single, “Supergirl.” Mia prepares to face her day, donning her uniform, gathering her books, and sliding down a fireman’s pole from her loft to the humungous kitchen-dining-room-living-room area. She says bye to mom and meets her best friend, budding environmental activist Lilly Moscovitz (the superb Heather Matarazzo, who has not nearly enough to do in this film), whereupon the girls ride their scooters to school, up and down the SF hills. All in all, it looks like Mia’s got a fine life for a girl who thinks she’s an irredeemable outcast.
And then the conventional and improbably premise of Garry (Beaches) Marshall’s The Princess Diaries kicks in, which might be understood as a confirmation of the all right-ness of Mia’s life so far, or an argument that it needs serious improvement. Mia gets a letter from her grandmother announcing that she is coming to visit, in itself not a remarkable event, until you learn that grandma is Mary Poppins. Just kidding. But close: grandmother on her dead father’s side is Queen Clarisse Renaldi (played by Mary Poppins, a.k.a. Julie Andrews), and, well, Mia is supposed to leave her SF life and head to (the make-believe country of) Genovia, in order to take her rightful place as heir to the throne. Needless to say, this bit of news throws a wrench in Mia’s immediate plans, like passing history class. Or, as she puts it: “I’m not ready to be a princess. I’m still waiting for normal body parts to arrive.”
But if Mia is at first properly horrified at this extraordinary turn of events, the film depends on her agreement to give it a try. And so, the deal is that she’ll go through intensive princess “training” for a month, try out at a lavish state dinner, and then she and Clarisse will reevaluate.The training amounts to an elaborate makeover (where’s Freddie Prinze Jr. when you need him?), during which Mia is reconditioned so that she will use the correct fork, walk with a book on her head, cross her ankles when she sits, speak proper English (as it appears that this is, conveniently, the language they speak in Genovia), and of course, have her appearance radically altered.
Among the many habits Mia must change is her too-teenish tendency to bob her head along with music on the radio (“You’re not a doggie on a dashboard!” cries her alarmed grandma). Luckily, the behavioral transmutations are assisted by Clarisse’s most trusted and charming servant, a limo driver named Joe (Hector Elizondo, who has now appeared in something like 300 Garry Marshall movies). He’s got his act together: he can kowtow and bow his head with the most obsequious of Clarisse’s roustabouts, but he has somehow earned her subtle respect as well. Joe’s advice to Mia is inevitably practical and wise (“No one can make you feel inferior,” he intones, “without your consent”), and he even has a few pearls to bestow on the queen when she behaves too queenishly (and Elizondo is very likely the only actor on the planet who might have made this character watchable; he has an easy rhythm with Andrews and he’s lovely with the kids). Because of Joe, Mia’s etiquette instruction is slightly less offensive than it might have been.
Not so the beauty makeover, for which Clarisse taps a foo-foo fellow called Paolo (Larry Miller). He throws up his hands—literally and often—and immediately proclaims the impossibility of the task before him, decrying the poor girl’s Groucho-meets-Brooke-Shields eyebrows and absolutely frightening hair. When she emerges from the miraculous process (aided by lipstick and mascara girls Gretchen and Helga—whose names, alongside Paolo’s and Joe’s, imply that Genovia has a very rich cultural history indeed), Mia is transformed. Gone are the frizzy hair and thick glasses: the new and improved Mia is sleek and elegant, like she’s just stepped off the cover of Cosmo Girl!
This new look leads to predictable problems with Lilly (who thinks first, that Mia will abandon her and second, that Mia should take the princess job so she’ll be in a position to help save the rainforests) and even more with Lilly’s older brother Michael (Robert Schwartzman), who suddenly realizes that hey! Mia’s, uh, like, really pretty. And oh yes, Lana: feeling threatened by a princess in her domain, she’s very mean, and will have to learn a lesson about sharing with others. She also gets to sing about a minute of a song at a school function on the beach. While this abbreviated performance is obviously inserted for no other reason than the fact that Lana is played by Moore, it does make you wonder just whom the film is aimed at: most of the girls (and boys) who appreciate Moore will be bored to tears with the rest of this silliness.
Director Marshall says that he wanted to make a G movie that his granddaughters could see, that would, we might guess, provide the same sort of uplifting and girl-empowering message that his Pretty Woman did for so many Julia-wannabes a few years back (we might safely presume that no one wanted to be like anyone in Exit to Eden). Adapted from Meg Cabot’s novel by Gina Wendkos (Coyote Ugly, which some folks might see as another girl’s empowerment story), The Princess Diaries was produced by Whitney Houston’s BrownHouse Productions, who are, according to their own press, all over this you-go-girl angle.
The problem is that the story in The Princess Diaries is distressingly out of date, especially in its quaint notions of what constitutes “success” or “empowerment” for girls. True, the film itself rather undermines this faith in straightened hair and contact lenses as means to power when Mia makes a big speech about her desires and limits while wearing not the gown she’s supposed to be wearing, but a rain-soggy sweatshirt. But the many contrivances by which the film gets Mia to this point are tedious and wearying, even for supergirls.