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Published: Friday, 8/3/2001

The Princess Diaries: Disney weaves sweet but fluffy fairy tale

BY NANCIANN CHERRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

In Broadway's My Fair Lady, Julie Andrews played a lower-class flower girl who was transformed into a posh-toned lady who could pass herself off as a blueblood.

In Pretty Woman, director Garry Marshall transformed Julia Roberts from a hooker to an elegant young sophisticate.

Put Marshall and Andrews together, and what do you think the theme of the movie will be? Transformation, of course.

There's something comfortable about a Marshall movie. The director of such films as Runaway Bride, The Flamingo Kid, and Dear God doesn't have an iota of originality left in him, but he somehow combines familiar elements in such a way so as to make the end product entertaining.

And so it is with The Princess Diaries, which is the basic Pygmalion story.

Andrews plays Queen Clarisse Renaldi of the tiny kingdom of Genovia. She comes to San Francisco to meet her estranged granddaughter, the child of her recently deceased son, to see if the girl will accept her royal responsibilities.

That girl is 15-year-old Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway), who lives with her artist mother in a restored firehouse and who goes to a private school, where her goal is to be invisible, a feat she usually achieves.

Mia's mother and father were briefly married and divorced when she was very young. Before his death, her father sent birthday gifts and school fees, but that's about all Mia knows of him. The news that he was a prince and she a princess has her feeling frightened, betrayed, and a little giddy. If the news gets out, her attempts at remaining invisible will be gone. She wants none of it, wailing, “Just in case I'm not a freak already, let's add a tiara.”

Before her, Clarisse sees a bushy-haired young woman with thick eyebrows and even thicker glasses. But those are superficial things that can be changed with new clothes and the deft hand of a world-class hairdresser. Clarisse is more concerned with Mia's lack of confidence and ability to learn how to deal with the world as a celebrity.

Mia's mother (Caroline Goodall), who feels a bit guilty about hiding Mia's heritage from her, brokers a deal: If Mia will put herself in Clarisse's hands and take “princess lessons,” Clarisse will abide by the decision Mia makes about which life to lead. The decision is to be announced at a ball at the Genovian embassy in a few weeks.

Marshall is a master at playing to fantasies: What would it be like to be a secret princess? What could an world-class hairdresser and custom clothing do for me?

But he also pays attention to real teenage concerns - making friends, fitting in, beginning to date - as well as touching on the downside of celebrity. While these additions in no way make The Princess Diaries a profound production, they do add some substance to this entertaining fluff.

The chemistry between the newcomer Hathaway and the veteran Andrews, who as Clarisse also has a few lessons to learn, greatly enhances The Princess Diaries. And Marshall-movie-veteran Hector Elizondo adds a lot of charm as Joseph, the head of Queen Clarisse's security, who becomes Mia's chauffeur and sounding board. Heather Matarazzo plays Mia's best-friend, Lilly, who is as committed to saving the planet as she is to her very strange hairdos. Robert Schwartzman is Lily's brother, Michael, who is smitten with Mia, and singer Mandy Moore plays Mia's nemesis.

Always harmless - this is G-rated, no less - and almost always engaging, The Princess Diaries is no more and no less than a live-action Cinderella, all dolled up for the 21st century. Thanks to Andrews, Hathaway, and company, it's easy to accept (for two hours at least) that fairy tales can come true.



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