Shtick, the whole world does shtick.
— Garry Marshall, “A New Princess”
— Queen Clarisse (Julie Andrews), The Princess Diaries
We’ve gotten so many fairy tails mixed into this one movie.
— Anne Hathaway, commentary, The Princess Diaries
“Anne Hathaway doesn’t play great drums, but as Mia, she’s not supposed to.” Director Garry Marshall’s commentary for the Special Edition DVD of The Princess Diaries is enthusiastic and amiable, by turns observational, confessional (“Julie Andrews is married to Blake Edwards… I studied him, and once in a while I stole from him”, instructive (“You may wonder what is a consulate…”), narrative (“Now she’s coming into kind of a scary place… they’re going to search her”), and comic (“Here comes this lovely girl, very good actress, who’s also my daughter. You know, sometimes you use a relative. I heard that nepotism is legal, so I made it an art form”). He is delightful.
While Marshall discusses the work of the production — explaining he process shots, his thinking behind almost every scene, the moment when the diary actually shows up on screen, second unit shots, how hard it is to change clothes in a limousine (“There’s no stunt doubles of anything, this is Anne”), and his appreciation of the company (“We got the money, Disney is a nice place to work”) — he plainly loves every aspect of that work. “You always get surprised by the audience, and that’s why it’s fun,” he asserts. (In addition to his track, the DVD includes another, called “The Ultimate Tea Party,” with Andrews and Hathaway (in which they discuss the best teabags, what ADR entails, Marshall’s habit of eating tuna fish and bananas and his book, Wake Me When It’s Funny, their histories of on-set mishaps with wigs and hairdos, their designer costumes, and their affection for every actor who shows up on screen.)
The movie is actually less adorable than these audio tracks. Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) is a frizzy-haired, thick-glasses-wearing high schooler. 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, dominant cheerleader-bitch Lana (Mandy Moore), treats her like dirt from another planet. In other words, Mia feels 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, Krystal’s “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 (superb Heather Matarazzo), 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 improbable premise 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, that is, Queen Clarisse Renaldi, played by Julie Andrews. Mia is supposed to leave her funky SF life and head to (the make-believe country of) Genovia, in order to take her rightful place as heir to the throne (otherwise, bemoans grandma, the country will “cease to exist as we know it”). 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, 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 been in every one of Marshall’s movies, admits the director). 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 (Elizondo has an easy rhythm with Andrews and he’s lovely with the kids). Because of Joe, Mia’s etiquette instruction is less offensive than it might have been.
Not so the beauty makeover, for which Clarisse taps a foo-foo fellow called Paolo (Larry Miller, who made over Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman). He throws up his hands — literally and often — and immediately proclaims the impossibility of the task before him, decrying the poor girl’s thick eyebrows (put on each morning, hair by hair, says Hathaway) 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, Jason’s brother), who suddenly realizes that hey! Mia’s, uh, like, really pretty. And oh yes, Lana: feeling threatened by a legitimate 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 — she’s just beginning her movie career at this point, and she is already a galvanizing presence.
Marshall says 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). Disc One of the Special Edition DVD includes eight deleted scenes, with introductions and afterwards by director Garry Marshall, explaining why they were cut; a behind the scenes featurette, “A New Princess” (including interviews with Marshall, producers Whitney Houston and Debra Martin Chase, Anne Hathaway, Mandy Moore, and Heather Matarazzo, all singing the praises of Julie Andrews, as well as background on the production); and two music videos, Myra’s bland “Miracles Happen” and Krystal’s livelier “Supergirl.” In addition to the audio commentaries, disc two includes outtakes and bloopers; a mini documentary on real princesses, “Livin’ Like A Princess”; sneak peeks at the sequel, opening 11 August, which promises to pair off Mia with a proper prince.
Adapted from Meg Cabot’s novel by Gina Wendkos, The Princess Diaries is out of date, especially in its quaint notions of what constitutes “success” or “empowerment” for girls. True, the film 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.