Saturday, June 15, 2013

Capsule Film Reviews: The Princess Diaries

You have to love Walt Disney. This is the studio, after all, that made a fortune off of fairy tales in the public domain like Snow White and Cinderella and then turned around and lobbied Congress to change the copyright rules so that one of their best known meal tickets, Mickey Mouse, didn’t end up in the public domain in the 1990s. The Princess Diaries, yet another Disney Hollywood fairy tale come to celluloid life was adapted from a book by May Cabot and directed by Garry Marshall, no stranger to fairy tales himself since he directed that 1990 Hollywood update of Cinderella Pretty Woman, a fairy tale film about a cheap street hooker who is hired by a Prince Charming corporate raider to hang on his arm and look pretty and with whom she finds true love in the end and was the man behind the fairy tale versions of America in the 1950s and 1960s, Happy Days (ABC, 1974-1984) and Laverne and Shirley (ABC, 1976-1983).

The 2001 The Princess Diaries is yet another Disney fairy tale film entry aimed at the young teen female demographic. The Princess Diaries tells the fairy tale of one Amelia “Mia” Thermopolis (shades of the equally mythical 300?). At the beginning of the film “Mia”, Anne Hathaway in her break out role and doing her best Audrey Hepburn, is living in a converted firehouse with her bohemian artist mother (Caroline Goodall) in hilly once upon a time hippieish San Francisco. She has a best friend who she spends a lot of time with, the even nerdier best friend Lily Moskovitz (Heather Matarazzo), the standard plain Jane sidekick of the heroine of so many chick flicks and television shows (see Larue Wilson in the Gidget TV series). She has a pet cat named Fat Louie. She is devoted to a car she is having fixed up and which she calls her baby, a classic Ford Mustang. She goes to a posh school in which she and Lily are the requisite outsiders and butt of abuse of the equally requisite group of mean girls and mostly shallow boys, one of whom “Mia” romanticises about. Mia’s life, however, is about to change.

Mia is turning 16 and unbeknownst to her she is also about to become something many young girls, young female teens, and even female twentysomethings dream about, a princess. Mia’s father, you see, was King, until his recent death, of one of those mythical duchies that dot the landscape of operettas and Hollywood films, Genovia. Over the course of The Princess Diaries Mia is transformed from a nerdy, frizzy haired, bespectacled, lacking in confidence, and mousy not part of the in crowd ugly duckling into the gorgeous, straight haired, increasingly confident Princess Clarisse Marie Grimaldi Renaldo with the help of a grandmother she hardly knows, the Queen Clarisse (Julie Andrews). Along the way Mia learns a number of life lessons from her grandmother and especially from her grandmother’s head of security, Joseph “Joe” (H├ęctor Elizondo). She learns, this is a fairy tale Disney film after all, life lessons about true friendship, the celebrity obsessed world (a world, of course, Disney helped create in real life), true romance (that other socially and culturally constructed romantic dreams of teenage girls), and responsibility, as she decides, happy ending ahead dear readers, that she will take up her duties just as her father did before her—his sixteenth birthday gift to her is his diary—as heir to the throne of Genovia. We have no doubt at the end of The Princess Diaries that Queen Clarisse Marie will be one of those humane monarchs to her subjects, humane monarchs that show up so often in Hollywood fairy tales. If only real life was like the movies!

Along the we viewers, well this viewer learned several things as well. I learned that there are ugly ducklings who will never be anything other than ugly ducklings and who are the butt of Disney jokes when they are the alternative to the person we are rooting for so hard to become princess. At least the ugly ducking who will assume the throne if “Mia” doesn’t and her scheming father weren’t the evil others of classic Hollywood Disney fairy tales like 101 Dalmatians. I learned that the extras on the Disney DVD I watched (the double disc collector’s set of The Princess Diaries) aren’t worth the time or effort. Promotional drek for the most part. Disney ain’t no Criterion or Masters of Cinema. I learned that dreams really can come true particularly if they come from Hollywood and if you too look like Anne Hathaway. And I learned that I like romantic fairy tales despite all of my smacked in the face by reality cynicism. What can I say, I loved Roman Holiday (where princess escapes from the Roman consulate of her duchy, becomes a commoner, if only for a day, matures, something symbolised by her haircut, and eventually returns to perform her royal duties toward her loving subjects) and I liked The Princess Diaries.

The Princess Diaries is a good film even if it occasionally does slip into that patented disneyfornicated sugar coated almost rots your teeth sweetness and cuteness mode and even though its comedy is sometimes way too sitcomy broad for my taste. Recommended. Just don’t believe all the fairy tale romantic hype.

The Princess Diaries, 2001, directed by Garry Marshall, screenplay by Gina Wendkos, 115 minutes, 1:85:1

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