Disney’s The Princess Diaries, despite its grandiose carpet bomb of a title (n.b. the subliminal “Princess Di”), is a modest, enjoyable fairy tale that easily outcharms its animated stablemates of the past decade. Director Garry Marshall folds G-rated high school angst into a feminist primer that entertains as it cites its sources, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Reviving Ophelia, therapist Mary Pipher’s impassioned (if overgeneralized) report on the besieged state of the American adolescent girl.
Socially invisible 15-year-old Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) is living an agreeably bohemian life with her artist mom in San Francisco when her paternal grandmother (Julie Andrews) pays a visit. It turns out she’s the queen of Genovia, and her late son—Mia’s absent father—was the prince, leaving Mia next in line to the throne. (Genovia, “a country between France and Spain,” gets colored in hilariously, from its renowned pears to its bombastic national anthem.) When the press catches wind, high school goes topsy-turvy, as Mia shuttles between the in and out crowds. (Heather Matarazzo is smart and spazzy playing her best friend, Lilly.)
The movie hits its timeworn marks with grace and wit, thanks to game gamine Hathaway and an effortlessly regal Andrews (Hector Elizondo does yeoman’s work as Genovian chauffeur and all-around wise man). A ring-laden stylist named Paolo Puttanesca invigorates Mia’s de rigueur makeover scene, spouting principessas like a demented Benigni and addressing her pre-pluck eyebrows as “Frida and Kahlo.” Even the “opposites bond” sequence, wherein Mia gives her grandmother a tour of “her” San Francisco, is more hoot than emetic. (Sealing this critic’s positive countertransference, Mia takes the queen to the Musee Mechanique, a paradise of vintage coin-operated diversions and secretly my favorite place on earth.) The supporting cast is remarkably attuned, from Sandra Oh as a closet-monarchist vice principal to Robert Schwartzman as Mia’s limp-banged swain. At the center of it all, Hathaway flexibly navigates between pratfalls and positivity. She’s all that (as they say) and more—a vivacious rebuttal to Diderot’s comment (as quoted in Pipher) to the young Sophie Volland: “You all die at 15.”