thatcow

So you wanna be a princess?

The Princess Diaries is formula, no doubt about it, of the Cinderella sort, where we watch someone undergo a miraculous transformation, and the central question is whether this person can survive self-doubt and the machinations of jealous folk to truly become this new person.

Now, formula may be the subject of ridicule, but that happens because we're already familiar with the structure and emotional underpinnings of the story. Forumla movies have to live up to a higher standard to get past our cynical minds. Keeping character and plot interesting to keep us in the film is even more important than usual.

Anne Hathaway is Mia Thermopolis, who lives in San Francisco with her quirky painter mother. Her paintings must be good, because we see no other sign of support, and the bay area ain't cheap. As for Mia, she's a typical well-meaning but socially outcast fifteen year old. In a different sort of movie, she'd be starting to get mixed up with the wrong crowd. Her best friend is Lilly (Heather Matarazzo), and they have the sort of dynamic where they bolster each other against the harsh feelings of not belonging in school.

One day, Mia's grandmother comes to town. And as turns out, she's a queen of some made up country, Genovia, which makes Mia a princess. This has been kept from her so that she could have a normal childhood, following her parents estrangement. But Mia's father - and the Queen's son - died a couple months back, which has forced the issue of naming a proper heir to Genovia's throne.

And so, much of the middle of the movie is concerned with "Princess Lessons" and Mia's changing social world. And, of course, we build up to the expect crisis, in her mind, of being able to fulfill on the responsibilities of such a life.

This setup is fine, and has good potential. It's even a great setting for exploring character. As we start, Anne Hathaway's Mia is an opinionated, uncensored young woman at home and where she feels comfortable. At school and more public situations, she is uncertain and bumbling. We do get a sense of her as a person. Upon the revelation of her royal status, she fights it, not being interested in a public life.

The movie goes downhill as it progresses, at least in terms of what I'm looking for in a film. The princess lessons become more of the focus than what Mia is going through. We never truly lose the thread of her struggle - in fact, the movie depends on it. It just gets pushed to the background, to fit the attention span of younger viewers.

I want to give this film two ratings, but I'll just have to average them. It's a great film for the young, but doesn't quite work for older teens or adults. My problems with the film are there by design, but I feel a better effort could have been made to work for everyone.

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