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Movie Reviews

The Princess Diaries  

Cast:
Julie Andrews... ...Clarisse
Anne Hathaway... ...Mia
Heather Matarazzo... ...Lilly
Hector Elizondo... ...Joseph
Mandy Moore... ...Lana
Caroline Goodall... ...Helen
Robert Schwartzman... ...Michael
Erik Von Detten... ...Josh

Directed by: Garry Marshall
Written by: Gina Wendkos, Based on the novel by Meg Cabot
Rated G
Running Time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Wealthy Woes

Several years back I remember watching an Oprah Winfrey special about teen issues. One segment featured her posing a question to her group of guests: if given a choice, would you rather be beautiful or intelligent? Of course, there were the conformists who said looks and the rebel-types who said intelligence. Winfrey, utilizing her trademark charisma, made a strong point in favor of book smarts. But in the middle of the query a boy responded: "I'd rather have the looks, because no matter how smart you may be, no one will listen to you if you're not beautiful." I wasn't so much caught by his statement as by her response to it ... she didn't have one. Apparently caught off guard, she said softly "I see," and immediately moved on to the next kid.

Regardless of whether you believe the statement to be true, it does seem to be the proverbial wrench tossed into the plans of brilliant individuals like Winfrey who battle tirelessly to help those in finding the best in themselves. The fact that she was unable to respond is quite revealing.

Personally, I think it's true. Hardly anyone achieves a level of notoriety for their intelligence if it isn't accompanied by a captivating physical presence. If you're good-looking, you have a better chance at getting your ideas across. If by an extreme stroke of luck one achieves a degree of fame for their ideas and is not good-looking, you can bet that somewhere in the Big Apple a Saturday Night Live cast member is practicing a glib impersonation. Sad but true, on the stage of acceptance, looks play a leading role. Hell, even one of my favorite feminist writers is Naomi Wolf who, let's face it, really does look great. (Yeah, I know. I'm my own contradiction. Sorry.)

Now, I don't want to immediately point my finger at the new Disney movie "The Princess Diaries" and accuse it of perpetuating the myth that looks are more important than smarts. But the film certainly does seem trapped by it. Consider two of the main characters: best friends who share the distinction of being outcasts at their school. One is a somewhat bland, depressed kid who's about to learn she could inherit the throne of a foreign country. The other has a fiery attitude and houses a myriad of brilliant ideas and dreams beneath her rather unfortunate hairstyle. One is infinitely more interesting than the other, and I'll give you a hint ... it isn't the "princess."

The soon-to-be-notified heiress is Mia Thermopolis, and is played by Anne Hathaway who doesn't really look like a teenager, especially after going through her "physical transformation." Her best friend is Lilly, winningly portrayed by the consistently fascinating Heather Matarazzo. She is one of the film's best elements, but the movie keeps suppressing her character not so much by accident as out of necessity. Director Garry Marshall ("Pretty Woman") struggles to maintain the story's fairly tale feel that it ends up getting mired in the preservation of an old-fashioned concept that's getting too old-fashioned for its own good.

One fateful day, Mia's grandmother (Julie Andrews) re-enters her life after a lengthy absence. She asks to meet with her granddaughter and tells her that her recently deceased father was the Prince of Genovia, and that the throne is hers to claim. Too used to being picked on by the popular kids led by the superficial Lana (pop singer Mandy Moore), Mia is not quite ready for the attention associated with being a princess. She is given a complete physical makeover which makes her suddenly popular in school and threatens her relationship with Lilly. Basically, the story is of Mia trying to deal with the pitfalls of being a beautiful princess.

Yep, that's right. The pitfalls of being a beautiful princess, and that's the cornerstone of the film's problem. Mia's initial struggle prior to her lifestyle change seems much more daunting - and curiously fascinating - than her unfortunate bouts with the news media. I suppose one could argue that the movie is simply conforming to the fairy tale formula upon which it is perched, but come on, folks. Isn't this material a bit dated? It is for me, as I kept noticing better avenues the storyline could have taken.

Director Marshall and screenwriter Gina Wendkos show flashes of intelligence, yet even those are strangely misguided. The movie is smart enough to quote Eleanor Roosevelt, but does so in the wrong scene, after Lilly berates Mia for her new look. That's right, Lilly. Not the mean-spirited Lana, but the basically good-natured Lilly, battling a sad bout of envy. That's when it decides to make its point about standing up for yourself. In another head-scratching moment during a speech near the end, Mia talks about why she's eager for the glamour associated with the throne, and offers one reason as being a gateway for brilliant ideas (those from Lilly, in particular) to become actions. Say what? That plays right into the hands of the aforementioned notion of looks winning the war over intelligence.

Despite some other good performances, including the always terrific Julie Andrews and Hector Elizondo (a Marshall favorite) as the queen's head of security, the movie ultimately collapses beneath the weight of its beauty-laden, fairy tale mentality. That notion may be the perfect comeuppance, as there are more important issues than how a teenager must learn to cope with being rich, popular, famous, and attractive.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney

Critically Ill

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