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THE PRINCESS DIARIES
Widescreen

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Julie Andrews, Anne Hathaway, Heather Matarazzo, Hector Elizondo, Mandy Moore, Caroline Goodall, Robert Schwartzman
Director:  Garry Marshall
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Walt Disney
Features:  See Review
Length:  115 Minutes
Release Date:  December 18, 2001

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

“Eleanor Roosevelt said that.”

“Yes.  Another special lady.  Like yourself.”

Film **

The Princess Diaries is a movie with a good heart and sweet intentions…I love the fact, for example, that it is a true family film in every sense of the word.  Not only is it rated G, it happens to be completely free of even the mildest of swear words, and is totally void of just about anything anyone could find objectionable.  Given the ever-increasing number of kids in my family, I appreciate that tremendously.

Unfortunately, what it boasts with heart and charm, it loses with unoriginality and length.  This film is essentially just another ugly duckling story off of a long assembly line.  One could go back to Pygmalion and/or My Fair Lady, Cinderella, or even director Garry Marshall’s own Pretty Woman for a clear cut example of the formula this picture mimics without adding much new.

I love Julie Andrews…always have, always will…and her presence in this film is a genuine plus.  She plays Queen Clarisse of Genovia (a country supposedly between France and Spain that happens to be an English speaking one), who comes to America to bring a bit of shocking news to her awkward 15 year old granddaughter Mia (a charming Hathaway)…she is the only blood heir to the throne of Genovia!

Mia is every cliché you’d expect from this kind of movie…bad hair, glasses, poor posture, can’t get up to speak in class without getting sick to her stomach, et cetera.  She has to be all of this so that we’ll be effectively wowed by the Shaw-styled transformation we know from frame one she’s going to go through.  I’ll give credit where credit is due, though…the revealing shot that shows Mia’s new look IS impressive, and we realized the make-up challenge in the film was not in making Mia look pretty for the final stretch, but in making the lovely Ms. Hathaway seem effectively unattractive for the early going.

The film’s strength is in the cast, which includes nice supporting bits by Hector Elizondo as a faithful side, the funny Heather Matarazzo as Mia’s friend Lilly (who runs a local cable show called “Shut Up and Listen”), and yet another acting Coppola, Robert Schwartzman as Michael, Lilly’s brother and the boy who saw Mia “even when she was invisible”.

They are anchored by Andrews and Hathaway, who emit real screen chemistry and exhibit a natural talent for comic timing.  Some of the film’s best moments are almost throwaway bits, as when Queen Clarisse quietly cleans objects before touching them, or Mia’s unfortunate accidents with her electric scooter.  When they team up for an important dinner party sequence, the results are truly funny.

It’s a shame the script didn’t have more to go on.  There’s nothing in The Princess Diaries we haven’t seen before, and given the near two hour running time, it becomes a bit of an exercise in patience waiting for everything we’ll have known was coming from the get-go.  The charm of the leading ladies goes a long way in making up for the lulls, but not even they can cover them completely.

Other parts of the film are awkwardly handled.  It opts for a traditional romantic choice for Mia…does she go with the less popular boy who truly likes her, or the handsome jackass who only made fun of her until he found out she was a princess?  I’ll bet you’ve guessed right already.  Then there is a puzzling subplot involving a pair of villains who are introduced at about the halfway point in the film, then forgotten about until right at the very end…were they necessary?  They don’t even make an impression, but I guess somebody figured there had to be an antagonist.

All things considered, it doesn’t add up to a successful film.  Just because it went for and earned a pure G rating doesn’t mean it couldn’t have striven to be better.  I loved Julie Andrews and Anne Hathaway immensely…I just wish they could have been paired in a better film or given a more suitable script for this one.  As it stands, it’s amusing but not funny enough, and charming without being winning.  Mostly, it just suffers from one too many trips to the recycling bin.

Video ****

This anamorphic transfer is flawless, and definitely deserving of its THX certification.  From beginning to end, the palate of colors is warm, rich, vibrant and natural looking, with no bleeding or distortions.  Even better is the level of detail, which shines through in the elaborately decorated settings the film takes us through.  Even the black of Julie Andrew’s early costumes renders beautifully, with visible texture and detail.  No grain, shimmer, or other artifacts of compression mar the beauty, and the print itself is superbly clean and clear.  Reference quality.

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack is more than serviceable.  Though most of the material is presented on the forward stage with noticeably good panning effects, the rear stage comes into play carefully and tastefully in one or two elaborate scenes.  The subwoofer doesn’t get a lot of attention…just a bit here and there for the music, but for the most part, it isn’t missed.  Dialogue is clear, and dynamic range is better than average.  The sound is very cleanly presented from start to finish…no complaints.

Features ****

Two excellent commentary tracks highlight this disc’s features, and I do mean excellent.  One features director Garry Marshall, which is as funny, fresh and informative a listen as I’ve heard all year.  The second is even more enjoyable, as stars Julie Andrews and Anne Hathaway sit down for a viewing of the film while sharing a proper English tea!  Ms. Hathaway impresses even Ms. Andrews with her amazing recollection of everybody’s name associated with the film, and both cheerfully discuss making the picture, with plenty of behind-the-scenes insights about other cast members, Marshall, costumes and sets, and more.  They even open up to one another about how each got started in show business!  This is a warm, funny, friendly and informative track, and one of the best ones of the year.

But that’s not all…the disc also features eight deleted scenes with funny introductions by Garry Marshall (who intones that for THIS segment, DVD stands for “Director Vas Dumb”).  There are two music videos by Myra and Krystal respectively, and a half hour production featurette hosted by Anne Hathaway.  All in all, a great collection of extras for a family film!

P.S. - Disney is still taking the prize for making you go through the most crapola to get to the movie on their discs.

Summary:

The Princess Diaries isn’t a great film, but it does make for a darn good DVD.  With a reference quality anamorphic transfer and a plethora of entertaining features, this is an example of a movie experience that is greatly enhanced by the capabilities of the DVD medium.  All things considered together, this one might be worth a look.  Especially if you have kids.