Jessica Campbell takes on another girl-power tale from 2001 with her review of The Princess Diaries, addressing the importance of fairy tales and also the similarities between high schools and royal living. 

What if you suddenly learned you were a princess?

No, I mean really.  What if you were living the average teenage life of braces, bad hair, high school drama, and constant social mortification, and then on top of that, Julie Andrews appeared and told you that she was both your grandmother and the queen of a small European country?  Answer: the hair would get better, but the social dilemmas would get thornier, and you’d have to do some growing up before feeling inclined to step into the role you’ve been offered.  Fortunately you’d have the grace of Julie Andrews, the reassuring presence of a chauffeur named Joe (Hector Elizondo), and a healthy dose of humor all along the way.

Or so it goes for Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway), anyway, in Garry Marshall’s film version of The Princess Diaries.  It’s based on a novel of the same name by Meg Cabot — there’s a whole series, actually, of which I’ve read the first three, and I still say today that they’re among the funniest books I’ve ever come across.  But the movie is no humdrum affair, either; I laughed out loud quite a few times when I sat down to watch it this weekend, even though I’ve seen it frequently enough to be able to remember most of the jokes before they come.  Let’s face it: teenage haplessness never gets old, because we all remember our own humiliations vividly enough that we have to respond with a rueful laugh.  Not that most of us were quite as disaster-prone as Mia — there’s definitely a slapstick element to the comedy in this movie, as Mia’s clumsiness takes on epic proportions when she begins to attend “princess lessons” and state dinners at the elegantly furnished and much be-statued Genovian consulate.

The truth is, I’ve had a tough time figuring out what to say about this movie to the General Reader.  My experience of The Princess Diaries is very personal.  Mia is supposed to be 15; when the movie came out, I was 14.  And I was desperate for a movie like this — a genuinely funny, smart, touching story about a girl who was even more of a social and physical disaster than I was.  My bangs were pretty hideous, I sucked at P.E., and boy, did I know what Mia meant when she talked about feeling invisible.  Finally, a story about a teenage girl I could actually imagine being friends with!  Everyone else seemed to like the movies and TV shows about high schoolers who mostly party and have sex, but I was too sheltered to find much to latch on to there — they just made me feel uncool.  I actually felt better at the end of The Princess Diaries: if Mia could get comfortable in her own skin, surely I could too.  I got the movie on VHS and watched it pretty often, eventually with my new friends in college.  It became a staple of sick days and bad days.  Even after all those viewings, it still gives me a little boost every time I go back to it.

There’s no question that the movie still works for me.  I can’t be sure how much of that is due to my familiarity with it, rather than just the quality of the movie itself.  But I don’t suppose I would have appropriated it so eagerly in the first place if there hadn’t been something to it.  First and foremost, this movie is hilarious.  I don’t always go for physical comedy, but Mia’s bull-in-a-china-shop entrance into the manicured royal realm is delicious.  The screenplay (by Gina Wendkos, after Cabot’s novel) is witty and believable, and all the actors seem to be taking great joy in their roles, without quite crossing over to the land of scenery-chewing.  I’d never seen Anne Hathaway before this movie, but I’ve felt like she’s my friend ever since.  Julie Andrews and Hector Elizondo are perfectly cast, and Heather Matarazzo, playing Mia’s best friend, Lilly, is appropriately obnoxious and funny.  And hey, look, there’s Mandy Moore as evil popular girl!

There isn’t a great deal of moral ambiguity; it’s pretty clear which denizens of the high school are good influences and which are not, and I think we all want Mia to decide to wear the crown.  And sure, there are plenty of lessons thrown in.  “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”

HOLD EVERYTHING.  Could this be…a fairy tale?

There we go.  The thing about fairy tales is that they’re simple, familiar, entertaining, and relevant to ordinary people’s lives.  That’s exactly how The Princess Diaries works.  It’s reminiscent of the rags-to-riches bit of Cinderella, the unlikely prince of Beauty and the Beast, the transformation of The Ugly Duckling.  More fundamentally, it taps into the fairytale standbys of the child learning a secret about her family, the cycle of the generations, the quest for bravery (many people would agree that public speaking, Mia’s personal hell, is as terrifying as meeting a wolf in a forest), various tests of one’s mettle, and the need to make an important choice.  The Princess Diaries works like many other modern retellings of fairy tales: it deals with age-old themes in a fully realistic, contemporary setting.  It has become fashionable to view the morality-lesson aspect of fairy tales with suspicion, but the fact is we tell these stories over and over again because there’s something worthwhile in those lessons.  For 14-year-old me, this movie’s message about courage and acceptance felt more like a reinforcement of what I really hoped was true but wasn’t seeing much of in the hallways of my junior high school.  For those of us who have escaped high school, well, another reminder can’t hurt.

So we can forgive the rather excessive evil-ness of the popular kids at Grove High School and of the ugly von Troken family threatening to take over the throne of Genovia if Mia decides not to assume her place in line.  It’s all of a piece with the fairy-tale tone; like in a Dickens novel, everyone is a bit larger than life.  (Also, it can’t not be fun to watch Mia jam an ice cream cone into a shocked Lana’s crisp cheerleader outfit.)  And there are other characters who aren’t as easy to pigeonhole.  Mia’s best friend Lilly, for instance; I’m willing to accept that they’re BFFs, but as funny as Lilly is, she’s awfully shrill, and her initial refusal to accept Mia post-makeover is every bit as mean as the popular kids’ disdain.  I’ve just realized for the first time what a debt this story owes to Pygmalion / My Fair Lady.  The trouble with gaining entrance to a different world is that you risk losing your foothold in the world you came from.

It’s striking, though, how similar the realms of high school classrooms and royal dining rooms actually are.  Both worlds have their idiosyncratic rules and customs, ways that you must learn to talk and dress and behave.  Both have in-crowds and outsiders, and both require you to figure out whom you want to associate with, and whom you’ll go to for help.  Every social milieu is a bit of a jungle, really, and Mia learns that it isn’t fundamentally a question about “fitting in” to either one of them; she finally gets somewhere when she focuses on doing what she wants to do, being who she wants to be, and associating with the people she most cares about.  Somewhat ironically, she gets to this point when, as she says in her speech accepting the princess position, “I realized how many stupid times a day I use the word ‘I.’  In fact, probably all I ever do is think about myself.  And how lame is that when there’s like 7 billion other people out there on the planet—”  Grandma cuts her off there because she’s talking too fast, but despite the rough delivery, the sentiment is crucial.  Part of growing up is realizing that the world doesn’t revolve around you, that you have a role to play in society that will affect other people, for better or for worse.  The movie doesn’t get into the state of Genovian politics, but we’ve seen enough of the von Trokens to accept that the country probably is better off with Clarisse and Mia in charge.

What about the handsome prince?  Michael, Lilly’s brother, isn’t particularly remarkable.  Except, of course, in that he’s clearly had a thing for Mia for a long time, bad hair notwithstanding.  It’s really more important that Mia rejects popular jerk Josh than that she accepts Michael.  But the payoff at the end of the ball is worth it: Michael, obviously a bit surprised to have regained Mia’s favor, asks, “Why me?” and she responds without missing a beat, “Because you saw me when I was invisible.”  High schoolers everywhere — and let’s be honest, the rest of us too — could sure stand to hear this kind of thing more often.  And there’s your happy ending: they kiss, Mia’s foot pops just as she’d hoped, and suddenly the fountains and lights in the garden burst into glory.  Now that’s a nice fairytale touch.  There aren’t a lot of embellishments in the movie; the Genovian consulate in San Francisco is beautiful but not over-the-top.  No sex, no curse words, not much in the way of special effects.  Just a simple and well-written story, a vulnerable and likeable heroine, quality comedy, and good acting.  There’s a lot more than just a spoonful of sugar helping the message come across in this one (come on, it’s Julie Andrews — I couldn’t resist).  It’s just as enjoyable now as it was the first time, and I wish there were more films like it.

Casual Thoughts and Moments to Relish

Mia’s hair is truly huge.

Hehe, “Get off the grass!” in multiple languages at the Genovian consulate.  I have no idea what the last language is, but the angry tone cracks me up every time.

Only Julie Andrews could lend such gravitas to the line, “It’s bigger than orthodontia.”

“Me? A princess? Shut up!”

Clarisse: “You could rule.”  Mia: “Rule?  No no no no, now you have really got the wrong girl….I’m no princess, I’m still waiting for normal body parts to arrive.”

A great detail: the retainer.  So, so many of us have tried unsuccessfully to talk through those things.  Just don’t do it.

“Just in case I’m not enough of a freak already, let’s add a tiara!”

Mia, surveying her pre-makeover appearance: “As always, this is as good as it’s gonna get.”  I definitely repeated that line to myself in the mirror many a morning before school.  Misery loves company.

I heart Hector Elizondo.  Can I get him to accompany me to all my destinations in life?

Lilly’s hair is truly awful.

I never quite got the M&Ms on the keyboard thing. It’s supposed to be cool, right?  But why?

Josh the Jock: “You gotta be the ball.”  Still working on that one.

Dancing with the Klutzes: “Grandma, I spun without hurting anyone!”

It seems a little presumptuous for Joe to go up to Clarisse and say “You’ve been wearing black too long.”  Obviously she likes him too, but shouldn’t you wait for the royal to make the first move?

Paolo, the hilarious hairdresser: “If Brooke Shields married Groucho Marx, that child would have your eyebrows.”

Mother-and-daughter art: throwing darts at balloons full of paint.  I still want to try that.

Lilly to Mia and Michael: “Wait up!” Lilly to two random people who seem to think she’s talking to them: “Not you, I don’t even know you.”

“A diplomatic answer.  Polite, but vague.”  I use this constantly.

Clarisse getting Mia out of trouble by inventing the Genovian Order of the Rose.  Man, she’s good!

Popular Girl B to Popular Girl A: “Sorry, it’s hard to keep up with who we’re not talking to.”

Mia at bat in PE class, after all the kids in the field step forward in expectation of a pathetic hit:

“I hate it when they move in like that.”  I know, right?

There’s something perfect about Mia wearing the tiara with her wet hair and grungy clothes.  As the Backstreet Boys intone at a couple of points on the soundtrack, what makes you different makes you beautiful.  As long as you know how to walk in high heels, too, if necessary.

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