Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) spends the first few minutes of The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement reporting what’s happened since last you saw her. As the film runs through a little montagey illustration, she says she’s turning 21, newly graduated from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, moving to Genovia to learn to be queen, and saying goodbye to her mom (Caroline Beven), now pregnant and distracted and quite ready to send her girl off to another land. And, just in case you don’t remember it, the film provides the much-reprised moment when Mia first learned she was a princess, the first film’s big ol’ laugh line: “Shut! Up!”
Amen to that. This set-up, made even more tedious by the ritual diary writing/reading-aloud, eventually lands you, along with Mia and her cat Fat Louie, in Genovia, where commoners crane their necks and exult as she passes. Upon her arrival at the palace, however, the princess discovers that her story is not quite so enchanted as she imagined. Though her grandmother Clarisse (Julie Andrews) wants to retire by year’s end, her Parliament — pressed by the unpleasantly ambitious Viscount Mabrey (John Rhys-Davies) — insists that the girl be married before she can assume the crown. Whereas part one charted Mia’s change from frizzy-headed child to princess material, this one proposes that it is her kingdom that needs to enter the 21st century.
But first, Mia must contend with a selection of “ancient traditions,” each designed to highlight her misfit status (though, accent-wise, she’s as disconnected as anyone else: most of the servants speak in “American” cadences, while her chicken-raising, cow-milking subjects sound sort of French, sort of Germanic, sort of British, even, in the case of the tabloid reporter, sort of Scottish — no people of color here, but lots of linguistic flippancies). For one thing, she has to sort through all the eligible bachelors in sight. These run old to young, gay to macho, and crass to refined. None seems quite right save for the one Mia can’t stand, the predictably handsome Lord Nicholas (Chris Pine), who just happens to be the Viscount’s nephew, and so, his own route to the throne. Aided by a few digital flashcards and advice from grandma, Mia settles on a suitable fiancé, wifty British Lord Andrew (Dead Like Me‘s Callum Blue). Nicolas is assigned to deflect her attention to himself, thus ruining the nuptials, which must be completed within 30 days.
Mia’s first encounter with Nicolas (she steps on his foot accidentally, he’s nice) establishes their problem, namely, they actually like one another when they don’t have plans otherwise. During their second encounter, she learns his name and knows his mission, and so she steps on his foot purposely. Not to worry, if you were so inclined. Nicolas is so plainly the anointed beau that Mia’s distress is instantly meaningless. This means that most everything she does and says in the next 100 minutes or so is also rendered trivial
It’s easy to guess what happens next in Royal Engagement, as Shonda Rhimes’ script conforms to rudimentary fairy tale-ish outlines, with clumsy filler material (how many times must we witness the queen’s poodle chasing Fat Louie through hallways or garden pathways?). Mia is good, kind, and morally adept, while Mabrey is mean-spirited and prone to using the media’s royal obsession to abuse the princess and make her cry (as when he tips off a camera crew to spy on her). He even goes so far as to have a minion frighten Mia’s horse with a rubber snake (strange: I thought horses reacted to smells, not glimpses of children’s toys).
Bland and canned, the sequel disappoints repeatedly, not least in its uses of the first film’s energetic supporting players. Mia’s endearingly skeptical best friend Lilly (Heather Matarazzo), currently enrolled at Berkeley for grad school, puts her own activist future on hold for no clear reason, other than to hang around at the palace and offer the occasional comment on Mia’s romantic silliness. Similarly, Joseph (Hector Elizondo), now the queen’s head of security, makes occasional appearances to remind Mia that she’s amazing and the queen that he’s in love with her. Though you’d think Elizondo would make a daunting cheerleader, Joseph mostly looks depressed, unable to sustain any “tension” as to whether or not he’ll convince his queen to let her hair down. And no wonder, as he’s saddled with dialogue like the following: “The heart does things for reasons that reason cannot understand.” Say what?
And so Clarisse spends most of her screen time reminding Mia of her duties and scrunching her forehead at Mia’s immaturities, but never quite getting around to what’s involved in marriage. For all of her big-smiled appeal, Mia remains a disturbingly naïve and unsexed girlie, one you’d like to see get some help from the many other girls around her — from Clarisse to Lilly to the maids to her own mother, who arrives for the wedding with her new husband, Mia’s high school teacher (um, ewww).
Clarisse does offer her services at Mia’s most bizarre engagement-announcement fete, a slumber party attended by a bevy of princesses. Most of these are much younger than Mia, more the age of the film’s likely audience. They love the mattress surfing game, the royal pajamas, and the karaoke, especially when Julie Andrews agrees to sing, helped out a bit by the token “African princess,” ex-Cosby kid Raven-Symoné, now going by “Raven.” Even as it so loudly declares its interest in girls’ independence, thoughtfulness, and generosity, Royal Engagement is disappointingly derivative, slapdash, and small-minded.