Is there room in this world for an outrageously old-fashioned, G-rated “ugly duckling” movie? Judging by the surprisingly strong opening of Garry Marshall’s The Princess Diaries, the answer would appear to be yes, even if a number of people — especially critics (who, yes, are people) — are expressing misgivings about the message the film is sending to young people. I suppose a case can be made that the film does tend to put a high value on appearance. It might also be noted, though, that the film places a higher value on how you feel about yourself, and recognizing your true worth and personal sense of what is and isn’t important. However, I doubt very much that either Marshall or screenwriter Gina Wendkos (Coyote Ugly) were seriously weighing the film’s “agenda.” Rather, they were more likely concerned with turning out a fluffy, blatantly unrealistic comedy that could appeal to the widest possible audience. And in the main, that’s exactly what they did. Even more, they managed to do it in a way that is almost never shrill or intelligence-insulting, and is often effortlessly charming. The slender story of Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathway), whose heretofore unknown grandmother — Queen Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews) — shows up one day to inform Mia that she is in reality the Princess of Genovia is the stuff of which Disney comedies were made for years. In fact, The Princess Diaries resembles the sort of “family” film the studio churned out by the yard for 20 years in between their bigger productions. The significant difference here is that the Disney people didn’t just have a staff writer throw together a script and hand it over to a house director. Instead, they hired a writer with some fairly solid credentials and a director of some note and personality. Say what you will about the bulk of Garry Marshall’s films, there’s no getting around the fact that he has a flair for color and locations, he knows how to direct actors, and he knows how to stage and shoot a comic scene. For a film of this type, there probably wasn’t a better choice for a director. The film is carefully gauged for broad appeal: the legendary Julie Andrews (who blessedly isn’t made to look as absurdly youthful as the posters for the film would have us believe), for the older crowd; Anne Hathaway (TV’s Get Real), for the younger set; Heather Matarazzo (Welcome to the Doll House), for the more disaffected younger set; and Hector Elizondo, to add a little weight to the proceedings (and because Marshall never makes a movie without him). What is surprising is that this comes together without feeling mechanical or forced. It all seems natural and right. Everyone is letter perfect and Julie Andrews is at her luminous best, neatly spoofing her own image while indulging in her natural flair for comedy. (Her haughtily calling out, “Goodbye, trolley people,” after charming her way out of an accident with a cable car is worth the price of admission.) She’s also a very generous actress, allowing Hathaway to hold her own in their scenes together. For a family-oriented film, the screenplay is unusually edgy. The characters — especially Mia, but also her mother (Caroline Goodall) and Queen Clarisse — have a pleasant tendency toward casual sarcasm, and this helps keep the film from crossing the line from sweet into saccharine. It’s basically insubstantial. It’s as old-fashioned as it can be. But it’s also a very pleasant two hours at the movies.
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