THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Princess Diaries is the latest in a seemingly endless line of Pygmalion-inspired films about ugly ducklings who are turned into beautiful swans. This one centers around Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway), a socially awkward 15-year old girl living with her single mother (Caroline Goodall) in San Francisco. Mia has wild, frizzy hair, braces, and glasses that even Drew Carey would consider unflattering. She and her best friend Lilly (Heather Matarazzo) are routinely tormented by the popular kids, especially the cute blonde cheerleader types like Lana (pop singer Mandy Moore in her film debut).

Mia gets word that her grandmother Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews) is visiting from the European country of Genovia. The two haven't seen each other in years, but the girl agrees to pay a visit, if only to honor her recently deceased father's wishes. But grandma has some shocking news: with her father gone, Amelia learns that she is the last remaining heir to the throne. She is officially a princess. Clarisse wants her to return to Genovia in order to claim the throne, but Mia isn't really up to the challenge. She's rather stay "invisible." They make a tentative agreement in which the girl will go through two weeks of poise training. At the end of that time, she can decide to take the throne or relinquish it, at which time Genovia will fall under the leadership of another family.

First up is a makeover, which essentially means that they take off Mia's glasses and straighten her hair. A problem with movies like this is that they always try to "ugly down" an actress who is obviously attractive, which sends a weird kind of mixed message to young audiences. Even in her "dowdy" mode, it's clear that any teenage boy would be falling over himself at the sight of Anne Hathaway.

Anne Hathaway gets poise lessons from Julie Andrews and Hector Elizondo in The Princess Diaries
Next are the requisite lessons in appropriate behavior. Helping to teach the girl to be more princess-like is the family security chief, Joe (Hector Elizondo). He's a good-natured sort who, with his bald head and leather wardrobe, is told by Lilly that he looks like Shaft. (I laughed at that.) Joe also protects Mia when the press gets word that a local high school student is royalty. Suddenly, fellow students are sucking up to Mia to get their fifteen minutes of fame, and news crews are following her around misreporting everything she does. Although somewhat romantic at first, being a princess suddenly doesn't sound like such a good idea, even if refusing the title would mean upsetting her grandmother.

The natural criticism of a film like The Princess Diaries would be that it is overly obvious. This is the kind of picture that assumes you can avenge years' worth of abuse simply by smearing an ice cream cone all over your rival's cheerleading outfit. The themes involving "the beauty within" and the social pressures of trying to fit in with the popular crowd are, by this point, so familiar as to almost constitute an "auto-plot." If you think you can guess every twist the story takes, you are absolutely correct. Hefty problems are solved in under two hours, with a minimum of muss and fuss.

That said, I am not in the target audience for this film. It is aimed at young women, many of whom will find some reassurance in the idea that anyone can blossom under the right conditions. Yes, to a 33-year old male, The Princess Diaries is little more than innocuous fluff. But to adolescent and pre-teen girls, it delivers a message they will want - and need - to hear. Director Garry Marshall also did Pretty Woman (an R-rated version of this same story), so he knows how to effectively hit the emotional moments to connect with the audience.

I'll even say that - as far out of the intended demographic as I am - there were certain pleasures to the movie. I liked some of the humor, which is zingier than I expected. (A makeover expert declares that if Brooke Shields and Groucho Marx mated, their offspring would have eyebrows just like Mia's.) The performances are above par, too. Elizondo is always good in the "decent guy" role, and Anne Hathaway is an appealing new talent with a flair for comedy. The biggest joy, though, is seeing Julie Andrews back on the big screen again. This is a part custom-made for her (the picture is released by Disney to boot) and she does a marvelous job with it. Much as Mia must learn to be a princess first and a teenager second, Clarisse must learn to be a grandmother first and a queen second. Don't be surprised if the Academy chooses to toss an Oscar nomination Andrews's way.

There are enough pleasures in The Princess Diaries to warrant a strong recommendation for young women and a moderate recommendation for everyone else. Other similarly-plotted movies have drowned in a pool of shallowness (She's All That immediately comes to mind); this one at least tries to shoot a little higher. Fluff though it may be, the movie ends with a welcome message suggesting that responsibility can be cool. Only a true cynic could knock that.

( out of four)

The Princess Diaries is rated G. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.
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