In The Princess Diaries, Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) is a gangly 16-year-old with a mass of brown curls, big lips that twist with emotion, sharp glasses (the girl knows style!), and thick, expressive eyebrows. Okay, so she can't speak in public or kick a soccer ball to save her life. But who needs team sports? "I'm a yoga-doing, rock-climbing kind of girl," Mia asserts. She has a clever and passionate best friend in Lilly (Heather Matarazzo). And Lilly's adorably shaggy musician brother Michael (Robert Schwartzman) is showing signs of a crush--although Mia herself has a crush on a popular blond boy in her class. In other words, she's a character full of character: sassy, smart, and shortsightedly clumsy with yearning.
Enter the makeover. Accch--what is it about females and makeovers? Why are there Jenny Jones shows dedicated to transforming cool goth or punk teenagers into teenagers wrapped in Tommy Hilfiger? How could The Breakfast Club have turned ferocious Ally Sheedy into a simpering, blush-wearing girly-girl? (I can still trace the scar on my heart from that one.) Should we lay it all at the skeletal feet of Walt Disney, who made Cinderella a makeover rite of passage for almost every American girl (and whose company now tortures us with The Princess Diaries)? Or does the seminal makeover story go all way the back to the Old Testament, wherein Delilah cut off the flowing hair of the heroic Samson, leaving him a weak, conventional guy with no greater gifts than anybody else?
The Princess Diaries offers Mia the choice between having character and being a princess. Yes, a princess! Seems there's an obscure European country (of which so many exist!) whose crown prince has just died. Through a quirk of fate, this same prince had a relationship with Mia's San Francisco artist mother about 17 years ago. Queen Clarissa Renaldi shows up, looking like Julie Andrews, and summons Mia to tea in a posh mansion (obscure European countries have posh San Francisco consulates?). Mia, the Queen reveals, is the only family heir to the Genovia throne. Will she accept the crown and its required training (e.g., learning to use the right dinner fork)?
Because this is a new century, and women are encouraged to reach beyond constrictive old gender models, Mia doesn't grab the tiara and cram it on her head. Nor is she prevented from doing so by evil stepsisters (although some jealous schoolmates--even a completely out-of-character Lilly--do meddle with her mind). When director Gary Marshall remade Pretty Woman a decade later as Runaway Bride, Richard Gere actually had to convince Julia Roberts to accept wedding princesshood. This is progress, I understand. Here, Marshall clunkily stalls Mia's decision by making much of her social awkwardness. Mia is afraid of failing as a princess. I don't think this is progress.
Various men weigh in on the decision--including Pretty Woman's Hector Elizondo, once again playing the paid help--and you can guess the rest. Indeed, the whole plot is such a familiar operation that it runs itself. Marshall mails in his contributions: The movie stumbles like Mia between predictable scenes, their seams showing. Writers Meg Cabot and Gina Wendkos (Coyote Ugly) appear to have labored beneath a picture of Princess Diana--immortal model for the p.c. princess, with starving African baby and pearls.
The charm here comes from the three youngest principals. Hathaway puts so much comic energy and ruefulness into her pre-makeover Mia that I took another wound to the heart when she became just another pretty woman. Schwartzman, before his own cleanup, provides a sexy suitor who's not the standard hunk. And Matarazzo--all balls and barrettes--makes Lilly a tart wonder. She deserves her own un-princess diary. And so do we.
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