The mediocre conditions in the once-royal land of live-action family movies are hardly improved by “The Princess Diaries.” Based on the Meg Cabot novel that appeared last fall and was quickly ushered into the summer schedule by Disney — which once upon a time wrote the book on the family-film form — this is barely a step above the Mouse’s “Wonderful World of Disney” stable of TV pics. While Julie Andrews comports herself with unflappable class as the queen of tiny mythical Euro principality Genovia and co-star Anne Hathaway is a mildly enjoyable Eliza Doolittle to Andrews’ Henry Higgins, the entire project, under helmer Garry Marshall, exudes a pre-fab quality. As one of the only G-rated studio releases of the year, pic will have a run at a potentially large tot-to-early teen girl audience, but only average returns should be expected, though the ancillary train may earn a queenly sum.
Awkward Mia just wants to get through the 10th grade. Her gawkiness, in everything from debate class to softball, at the tony private Grove School in San Francisco, is beyond the pale, especially when we observe that her after-school job is as a rock-climbing instructor at a trendy indoor gym.
The only two people she can lean on are loyal gal pal Lilly (Heather Matarazzo), and her own artist mom, Helen (Caroline Goodall), who has converted an old fire station into the most tantalizing and least imaginatively filmed home in any movie this year. Otherwise, Mia is the target of the bullying darts of reigning school cheerleader-bitch Lana (Mandy Moore) and her minions. However, the local arrival of Queen Clarisse forces the revelation of a secret that mom Helen has kept from Mia: Helen’s ex-husband, the recently deceased Philippe, was next in line for the Genovian throne, making his only child, Mia, the rightful heir. No way, stutters Mia, is she ruling a whole country, but this is Julie Andrews she’s dealing with, and, soon, the girl is deep into etiquette training.
Marshall and screenwriter Gina Wendkos often waste the charming comic tone and observations of Cabot’s book, especially here, where the reformation of Mia is depicted almost off-handedly. Wendkos’ script dutifully installs roadblocks in Mia’s path, but her future as princess is never in doubt; it’s in her training where the comedy should lie, but virtually never does. Instead, energy is wasted on a series of bland, repetitive scenes at school, where the taunting of Mia goes on and on, where Mia goes for the wrong guy (Erik Von Detten) and ignores Mr. Right (Robert Schwartzman), and where the San Francisco media, learning of Mia’s secret, attacks her with waves of cameras and microphones.
Thus, the pic loses the irony of Andrews, once herself Eliza Doolittle, schooling Hathaway, who shows a few instincts for physical comedy.
Andrews is ideal casting and refreshingly assured, as is Hector Elizondo as the queen’s discreet security man who befriends Mia. Matarazzo plays Lilly as if her Dawn Wiener in “Welcome to the Dollhouse” had adjusted a bit more socially, but not enough for the boiling anger to subside.
For some reason, S.F. mayor Willie Brown drops in for a credited cameo that’s all of one line; even odder, Larry Miller drops in for an uncredited cameo of several scenes’ worth as royal makeover artist Paolo.
Per the norm with Marshall’s productions, the look is polished and ultra-straight, while the soundtrack is pockmarked with desperate-sounding jokey inserts that suggest having been included in post-production.