Rated G - Running Time: 1:55 - Released 8/3/01

Although the Walt Disney company has not been exactly batting a thousand in their live-action department in the last few years, The Princess Diaries, directed by romantic comedy veteran Garry Marshall, is certainly a step in the right direction. Far from a showcase of thespianism, the film offers a simple, sweet, idealistic plot line and a few fun little diversions, with adequate work by Anne Hathaway and several other teen actors and a thoroughly dignified performance by family-film icon Julie Andrews. Its story, adapted by Gina Wendkos from the novel by Meg Cabot, represents what Disney executives probably assume is every young girl's dream: to become a princess. Aaack. Excuse me.

Hathaway plays consummate teen geek and outcast Mia Thermopolis, whose puke-inducing fear of public speaking makes us wonder why she enrolled in debating class at San Francisco's Anthony Grove High School. Adorned with a mop of frizzy hair and thick, black glasses over inhumanly huge brown eyebrows, she makes her way through life by being "invisible" to everyone except her best friend, environmental activist and fellow geek Lilly (Heather Matarazzo) and Lilly's rock musician/auto mechanic brother Michael (Robert Schwartzman). Mia's quiet life changes, however, when she is told by her divorced artist mother Helen (Caroline Goodall) that she is indeed royalty. In a bizarre and altogether unlikely scenario, Mia's now deceased father was actually the prince of a tiny country between Spain and France.

No, geography buffs, it's not Andorra; Mia's newly discovered home is the fictional country of Genovia, and it is apparently an English-speaking monarchy quite similar to-- well, England. Except it's famous for pears. Genovia's queen, Clarisse Renaldi (Andrews), Mia's long-lost grandmother, who conspired with her late son and his ex-wife for 15 years to keep Mia in the dark about her heritage, suddenly appears and informs them that an unfortunate turn of events has rendered Mia the heiress apparent of the Genovian crown. Now, with only a few weeks until the nation's Independence Day ball, Mia must be transformed into a proper princess so that she may appear at the function to accept her family duty. The trouble is, Mia doesn't want to be a queen.

This is, of course, the same kind of Pygmalion story which launched Andrews herself to fame as Eliza Doolittle in the Broadway production of My Fair Lady all those years ago. In this version, Andrews takes on the mentor role, teaching Mia the finer points of walking, talking, eating, and dancing like a princess. We've seen it all before, most recently in last December's Sandra Bullock vehicle Miss Congeniality, including the gasp-inducing makeover scene, the comical ineptness turned to refined grace, and the dropping jaws of all nearby males when the transformation is complete.

But despite the hackneyed quality of the pretext, nice performances save this film from itself. Hathaway is adequately full of energy, if not technique, and Andrews radiates the kind of dignified confidence required of her character and expected of herself. Also on hand is the always reliable Hector Elizondo, a regular Marshall standby, who gives a respectably understated performance as the queen's driver and security guard, Joe. With class that equals that of Andrews herself, Elizondo gives the film a needed sense of dignity, and his scenes with Andrews are some of the most engaging. Overall, this film is perfect for little girls and at least adequately palatable for their parents. ***

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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