Aimed at femme grade schoolers, young teens and indulgent grandmothers, “The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement” is too blandly insubstantial to expand its appeal beyond its target demographic. Even so, Disney stands a reasonably good chance of generating respectable late-summer B.O. given the surprisingly strong performance of 2001’s “The Princess Diaries,” a modern-day fairy tale about a gawky San Francisco teen (Anne Hathaway) who discovers she’s the granddaughter of a European queen (Julie Andrews). Unimaginatively contrived and slackly paced sequel likely won’t match $108 million domestic gross of sleeper-hit predecessor but could enjoy equally impressive afterlife as homevid product.
With vet helmer Garry Marshall again in the director’s chair and most major players reprising their roles, new pic begins five years after events of 2001 pic. Mia Thermopolis (Hathaway), newly graduated from Princeton with a political science degree, flies off to the tiny principality of Genovia to live with Queen Clarisse (Andrews) and, presumably, assume her duties as princess. Shortly after she arrives at the palace, however, Mia learns that the succession process has accelerated and that she is expected to take the crown herself in the wake of her grandmother’s early retirement.
Unfortunately, there’s a catch: Ancient Genovian laws dictate that no unmarried woman may assume the country’s throne. Worse, the crafty Viscount Mabrey (John Rhys-Davies) hopes to exploit this technicality by installing his handsome young nephew, Nicholas Devereaux (Chris Pine), as rightful heir to the crown. Mia has just 30 days to find a suitable husband — and, while she’s at it, complete a crash course in queenly decorum — if she wants to follow her grandmother as ruler of Genovia, a mythical realm where inhabitants speak with a rather distracting variety of American, British and European accents. (Pic was shot entirely in Southern California.)
Working from a flavorless script by Shonda Rhimes, Marshall strives to manufacture low-voltage tension by forcing Mia to choose between two possible Mr. Rights: Andrew Jacoby (Callum Blue), an affable Brit nobleman who’s more of a polite companion than an ardent suitor; and Nicholas, a hunky charmer who progresses from sneaky deception to genuine adoration as he continues to pursue Mia even after her announced engagement to Andrew.
Mindful of target audience’s expectations, filmmakers are a tad too eager to stick with the formula that fueled previous pic. Despite her Princeton degree and fab-glam makeover, Mia comes across as scarcely more sophisticated than she was as a dorky teen in first pic. (Instead of a bridal shower, she hosts a slumber party with a toddlers-to-teens guest list.) Indeed, frequent scenes featuring wan slapstick suggest Mia actually has gotten even klutzier after turning 21. Hathaway once again demonstrates engaging charisma and a flair for physical comedy, but she’s hamstrung by the script whenever she tries to indicate Mia truly is evolving into adulthood.
As Queen Clarisse, Andrews once again radiates class, compassion and worldly wisdom with effortless elan. Better still, she has a few unexpectedly affecting scenes with longtime bodyguard Joe (Hector Elizondo, another alumnus of previous pic). Among other returnees from first “Princess Diaries,” Heather Matarazzo makes most vivid impression (with too few scenes, alas) as Lily, Mia’s best friend since childhood.
Pine suggests a younger, smarmier Rob Lowe as Nicholas. For some inexplicable reason — bad lighting? excessive makeup? — Rhys-Davies spends most of pic looking like a waxworks figure. Still, he is suitably animated when it comes to snarling villainy. Other supporting performances range from unremarkable (Tom Poston as a Genovian parliament minister) to acutely grating (Kim Thomson as an aggressively chipper TV reporter). Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee has a fleeting cameo as a wedding guest who’s much too fond of the Three Stooges.
Production credits are at best serviceable, with some scenes noteworthy for conspicuously unattractive lensing. Soundtrack abounds in peppy pop tunes by the likes of Pink, Avril Lavigne, Raven (who co-stars and briefly duets with Andrews) and Wilson Phillips. Norah Jones provides a dreamy cover of “Love Me Tender” that Marshall effectively uses to compliment a slow dance in the moonlight.
Marshall also peppers pic with sly allusions to TV sitcoms that employed him as writer, producer and/or director in the 1960s and ’70s. Listen closely, and you’ll hear references to everything from Lucy Carmichael (Lucille Ball’s character on “The Lucy Show”) to Lenny and Squiggy (from “Laverne & Shirley”). In a similar vein, helmer gives Andrews an in-jokey opportunity to recall “Mary Poppins” when she remarks, “I’ve done a lot of flying in my time.”