"The Princess Diaries" places three-dimensional human beings in a fairy-tale plot in a most beguiling fashion and teams a radiant Julie Andrews with appealing screen newcomer Anne Hathaway (of TV's "Get Real").
Though preteen girls, especially those who have read the Meg Cabot novel upon which the film is based, clearly form the film's target audience, this stylish Disney production is an ideal family film. As its director, Garry Marshall, demonstrated with "Pretty Woman," he has a special gift in making make-believe seem real. Make the improbable possible, advised Aristotle, and you've got the audience hooked.
Hathaway's Mia is a 15-year-old San Franciscan at that awkward age, with too much hair and unattractive glasses hiding her beauty. She's resigned to being regarded as a nerd by her classmates at a posh private school but has a firm friendship with the brainy Lily (Heather Matarazzo), an outspoken outsider. Mia lives with her divorced artist mother Helen (Caroline Goodall) in a charming--and surely pricey--converted former firehouse in the Mission District. Helen is a loving mother, and although shy and feeling overlooked, Mia is essentially happy and certainly hopeful.
Out of the blue Helen tells Mia that her grandmother--her father's mother--is in town and wants to meet her. Mia knows that she was the product of a college romance that led to a short-lived marriage. Mia receives loving letters and gifts from the father she has never met, and that's it. When Mia dutifully arrives at the consulate of Genovia, a small European principality that is the country of her father's birth, she does not know that her grandmother (Andrews) is its widowed queen.
It seems that although Helen loved her husband she balked at life as a royal, and she and her ex agreed that Mia should not be told of her royal parentage until she turned 18. But her father has been killed in an accident, and Queen Clarisse of the House of Renaldi is eager to announce Mia as heir to the throne, which will otherwise fall to some dreaded distant relatives. Without an heir, Genovia would simply go out of existence.
Suddenly, Mia is told she is a crown princess, expected to rule a country, yet she invariably gets tongue-tied when she asks to address her classmates. Queen Clarisse is the epitome of poise, elegance and self-assurance, while Mia is gangly and klutzy. The queen has three weeks to transform the ungainly--not ugly--duckling into a swan; in the meantime, Mia must decide whether she will renounce or accept her royal title and all the responsibilities that go with it.
All this is to happen in secrecy, but of course Mia swiftly becomes the center of a media storm, intensifying her predicament greatly but giving her some invaluable lessons in human nature and the importance of self-knowledge, regardless of what her decision will be. Looking more like the mother than the grandmother of a teenager, Andrews and the lovely Hathaway are irresistible. Andrews' Clarisse is a strong but loving and understanding woman, a thoroughly modern monarch, astute at business as well as diplomacy. She's chic, formidable, awesomely disciplined yet warm and humorous.
She's also a stunner, and the filmmakers subtly suggest that her bodyguard Josef (Hector Elizondo, a Marshall perennial) is more than just a key servant. What a sly, witty actor is Elizondo, who heads a nifty supporting cast that includes an unbilled Larry Miller as a world-renowned--and don't you forget it--hairstylist and Sandra Oh as Mia's celebrity-loving vice principal.
"The Princess Diaries" is polished in all aspects, but production designer Mayne Berke deserves special credit for resourcefulness.
The film has been skillfully adapted by Gena Wendkos so that it takes place mainly in three settings, with the Doheny mansion on Figueroa serving as the Genovian consulate, Sierra Madre's Alverno High standing in for Mia's private school and the whimsical interior of the firehouse created on a Disney sound stage. Yet Berke and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub make the film seem like it's happening entirely in San Francisco and environs.
"The Princess Diaries" has the sheen and scope of films far more costly--and often not as enjoyable.
MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: suitable for all ages.
'The Princess Diaries'
Julie Andrews: Queen Clarisse Renaldi
Anne Hathaway: Mia Thermopolis
Hector Elizondo: Joe
Heather Matarazzo: Lily Moscovitz
Caroline Goodall: Helen Thermopolis
A Walt Disney Pictures presentation. Director Garry Marshall. Producers Whitney Houston, Debra Martin Chase, Mario Iscovich. Screenplay Gena Wendkos; based on the novel by Meg Cabot. Cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub. Editor Bruce Green. Music John Debney. Costumes Gary Jones. Production designer Mayne Berke. Art director Caty Maxey. Set decorator Casey G. Hallenbeck. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times