There’s a lot of things you think you need, but then you don’t. So it’s good to cut them out.
— Garry Marshall, introduction to deleted scene, The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement
Director Garry Marshall is surely the most affable of commentators. His audio tracks for both The Princess Diaries and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement are more easily entertaining than the movies. Even his comments for deleted scenes reveal his usual charm (“Hi, me again!”), whether offering earnest explanations (“When you do a love story as part of your film, you need to do a lot of love scenes, so we can see the lovers together”) or self-deprecating jokes. And yet, though he trusts viewers (“I think the most difficult part of storytelling is how much of the story do you tell? How much information does the audience need?”), the slow-moving sequel succumbs to formula.
Just so: the film opens as Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) reports what’s happened since last you saw her. Illustrated by montage, 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, when she uttered the dominant laugh line: “Shut! Up!”
Amen to that. Following Mia’s ritual diary writing/reading-aloud, she heads back to 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.
It’s a good thing that, as Marshall observes in the “Making of Royal Engagement” (also on the DVD, along with “Royal Bloopers” and a quiz called “Find Your Inner Princess”), “In movies, you’ve got to have the close-up, and Anne Hathaway takes the close-up in here better than most actresses in the world” (this as she’s mugging, broadly, and yes, looking quite pretty as she does it.) The film bumps along from comedy to romance to bombastic musical moment. Thank goodness for the adorable DVD commentary, by Marshall (“The New York Times critic said Genovia looked like a back lot!”) and Julie Andrews (“Hello DVD people, this is Julie Andrews!”). Better to have no movie at all, and just listen to their detailed, overexplanatory, and frequently exclamatory narration. They’re funny enough.
They note the terrific costumes for Andrews’ queen (“To fit every contour!” gushes Marshall), Hathaway’s beauty, and the meeting cute for Mia and Lord Nicholas (Chris Pine). Before film’s end, she must endure a series of “ancient traditions,” each designed to highlight her misfit status (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, Nicholas, 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 (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 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 ostensible apprehension is instantly meaningless.
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 mean-spirited Mabrey uses 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. (“Annie’s riding off herself there,” exults Marshall, whereupon Andrews admits that she once rode sidesaddle for Darling Lily, and “It is very hard!”).
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.”
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 disturbingly naïve and unsexed, a girl 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.
Clarisse does offer her services at Mia’s most bizarre engagement-announcement fete, a slumber party attended by a bevy of princesses. Marshall and Andrews note that the party might make Disney executives nervous, because it might encourage similar behaviors; here Andrews agrees to sing, helped out a bit by the token “African princess,” ex-Cosby kid Raven-Symoné, now going by “Raven.” (“I was there when you did My Fair Lady,” says Marshall, “I saw it 11 times,” because, he says, he was a soldier and they let anyone with a uniform in as often as he wanted.) Along with Andrews’ return to singing, the party includes her granddaughter doing “a bit of hip-hop” dancing. Story, shmory. Even as it so loudly declares its interest in girls’ independence, thoughtfulness, and generosity, Royal Engagement is derivative, slapdash, and small-minded.