Sugary sweet, but palatable

The Princess Diaries

There are few G-rated films that adults can happily stay awake throughout without the help of coffee and maybe a crying baby (Meet the Parents, for instance). The trailer for The Princess Diaries suggests that it would be a most unlikely film to scrape into that elite group, so to see the full film, which is a very watchable, well-executed comedy, is actually a pleasant surprise.

The basic storyline: geeky girl with frizzy hair and thick glasses is transformed into a beauty who gets the guy. Yes, there’s not an awful lot originality contained within The Princess Diaries, the cliches abound and the story’s sugary-sweet to the point of saccharine saturation. And yes, it’s a far cry from the celebration of female independence that Nurse Betty pulled off, but it’s a story with a soul still worth bearing. Friendship and following your heart are at its centre.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for audiences watching this film will be that Julia Andrews is still alive (oops, blew it for you). Looking frighteningly like Glenn Close, she plays the imposing, upright Clarisse Renaldi, queen of the tiny European country Genovia. Following the death of her son, Queen Clarisse turns up unannounced in San Francisco to inform her granddaughter Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) that she’s now heir to the throne of a country she didn’t know existed.

Mia is unimpressed. Curly-haired, bespectacled, clumsy and shy, Mia says her sole aim in life is to become invisible. Her artist mother has kept her ex-husband (the dead guy, divorce was amicable) and daughter’s royal heritage a secret, in order to give her a normal childhood. But with her father’s untimely death – he left them when Mia was young to carry out his princely duties (go figure) – that childhood comes to an abrupt halt.

Mia decides to submit to the princess-moulding talents of Clarisse, but defers the decision of whether she will actually become a princess until the date of a royal ball. Her intellectual development is covered in a brief spiel by Clarisse about the "classics, political science, arts" she’ll be able to study as princess – conveniently forgetting that even commoners can do this. Clarisse’s teaching strengths instead lie with the physical. What that entails is utterly predictable, as we sit through scenes of Mia falling off chairs, Mia smashing important pieces of art, Mia dropping things and Mia being an all-round clutz.

Mia’s makeover is placed in the hands of the macho Paolo, who breaks his brush as he tries to get it through her hair. (Alas, there’s no explaining exactly what’s wrong with curly hair, which will certainly disappoint curly-haired people.) In retaliation, he breaks Mia’s glasses, demanding she wear contact lenses instead. It’s all been done before and there shouldn’t be anything wrong with wearing glasses; but this can almost be forgiven as we also watch Mia being swept away by the school hunk Josh (Erik Von Detten). She lets her best friend down and is (amazingly) oblivious to the attentions of Liam Gallagher lookalike Michael Moscovitz (Robert Schwartzman, son of Talia Shire, nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and cousin of Nicolas Cage). There’s no prize for guessing the lessons she learns and who she ends up with.

Spouting homilies about the importance of princess-like behaviour is certainly rather passe; the weight of this film is carried on the shoulders of its solid actors and by enough good one-liners to keep you smiling. Bodyguard Joey (Hector Elizondo) in particular has fun with his overly serious role, while Heather Matarazzo as Mia’s best friend Lilly Moscovitz brings an enjoyable gusto to hers.

The Princess Diaries isn’t going to change the lives of anyone – we are, after all, talking about a film that has been dubbed Pretty Woman for children. But it could provide a little reassurance for teenagers stuck inside braces, glasses and clumsy limbs that their ideas and voices matter. Older girls will probably scoff at the candy-coated story, but younger ones just might find themselves coming out feeling a bit better about themselves.

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