Ah, the good ol’ heavy glasses and frizzy hair — Hollywood’s hackneyed, telltale token of a plain girl due to have her life transformed by a makeover. Every generation of American girls gets a version of this tale thrust upon them, and this year’s model is Disney’s “The Princess Diaries,” the story of a private school outcast who discovers she’s heir to the throne of an obscure (read: fictional) European monarchy.
But this isn’t your grandma’s glass slipper flick. Our heroine is Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway from Fox TV’s “Get Real”), a brainy, affably wry San Francisco teenager who is none too sure she even wants the crown when the grandmother she’s never met comes for a visit and reveals — surprise! — she’s the queen of Genovia.
“My expectation in life is to be invisible, and I’m good at it,” Mia proclaims at the beginning of the movie. But while she skeptically contemplates accepting or renouncing her royalty — and the responsibility and exposure that would come with it — Mia does acquiesce to getting the “Pygmalion” treatment from her grandma (the oh-so-apropos Julie Andrews) during daily visits to the Genovian consulate.
Of course it isn’t long before Mia’s secret is out, what with her conspicuous new look (straight, shiny locks, plucked brows, makeup and contact lenses) and the limo driver/bodyguard/father-figure confidant (Hector Elizondo) that sticks close to her at grandma’s insistence. Suddenly she’s the school’s “it” girl, a boy magnet and a local media darling — and she’s just not sure how to cope.
“The Princess Diaries” is a refreshingly — but not aggressively — reformist fairy tale that doesn’t talk down to its audience or try too hard to be kiddie-hip like Disney’s “Parent Trap” remake. Writer Gina Wendkos (“Coyote Ugly”) peppers the screenplay with realistic adolescent wit (“Just in case I’m not enough of a freak already, let’s add a tiara!” Mia grouses). Director Garry Marshall, working from his “Pretty Woman” template, plays up the fresher humor (fashion-handicapped Mia trying to put on pantyhose in the back of a limo as it goes up and down San Francisco hills) and exercises relative moderation in the less creative comedic moments (Mia’s klutziness at a state dinner).
But the film does suffer from “It’s Just A Kids’ Movie” Syndrome, the major symptom of which is transparently lazy storytelling that prevents “Diaries” from fully realizing its potential. It’s frequently narrated by inane fake “news reports” and is positively perforated with petty but nagging plot punctures — many of them relating to how the ludicrously nonsensical Genovian political structure bends to accommodate the story and locale. These holes could have easily been patched if Marshall had cared enough to make the effort.
More significant complaints: Mia actually looks better before her makeover (afterwards she’s totally generic). Central characters are unevenly drawn (supposedly insecure Mia seems perfectly self-confident 50 percent of the time). Personality traits are often highly contrived (Mia goes indoor rock-climbing and petitions to save the Spotted Owl). And Marshall pads the run time unnecessarily with irrelevant and self-contained asides, like a cable car crash and a scene in which bubble gum pop singer Mandy Moore (making her acting debut as the catty, blonde cheerleader from central casting) badly lip-syncs to her own cover of Connie Francis’ “Stupid Cupid.”
Couldn’t this stuff have been cut so we could get to the inevitable royal ball and gorgeous gown climax 20 minutes faster?
For the most part, the movie’s warm, smart and romantic elements outnumber its annoying shortcomings, and the three lead actors are winsome enough to carry “The Princess Diaries” though its rough patches. Hathaway finds a charmingly flustered core to her inconsistent character and brings it to the forefront. Andrews is ideal as the primly regal queen who isn’t afraid of her footloose side. And Elizondo adds an extra touch of humanity with some droll observational humor and fatherly advice.
Had Marshall aimed a little higher and tried a little harder, “The Princess Diaries” might have been a movie that anyone could enjoy without having to lower themselves to that “it’s just a kids’ movie” mindset. But even with its flaws, it is a movie that young girls will likely remember fondly and vividly as they grow up.