A Royal Shame
Garry Marshall is at it again. The director of Pretty Woman, Beaches and the original Princess Diaries has returned to peddle his particular brand of überschmaltz in The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, in which he disguises an insidious worship of wealth and privilege as a "feel-good" comedy about a wacky girl whose transition from ugly duckling to swan is supposed to inspire feelings of empowerment. In three words: It's a crock.
Here's the concept. When we last left her, Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway), once a geeky high school student in San Francisco, had accepted her role as Princess of Genovia, a vaguely European country crafted entirely by Disney's Imagineers. As the second movie opens, Mia graduates from college (from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, no less) and royal-jets her way over the Atlantic to Genovia--not, as it turns out, to be princess but to be queen. Her grandmother, Queen Clarisse (Julie Andrews), has decided to end her reign.
Of course, the film needs a conflict, and it arrives in the form of an archaic law: Single queens cannot rule. If Mia wants the throne, she must marry, and she must do so within 30 days. Thus begins the hunt for an appropriate king, conducted via something resembling the Internet. Mia does meet a charming bachelor, Andrew Jacoby (Callum Blue), and they agree to wed. But, alas, Mia doesn't love him. Since she informs us in the film's opening scenes that "the one downer in [her] fairy tale is [she's] never been in love," we know that her heart will not be left to wither on the vine.
Love arrives in the form of Nicholas Devereaux (Chris Pine), who initially stakes his own claim to the throne, guided by his nefarious and scheming uncle (John Rhys-Davies). Eventually, Nicholas acknowledges his error and pursues Mia for love and not for gain, even as she's on a collision course with the altar. The glaring problem is that, having begun the film in the shadow of his evil uncle, Nicholas never recovers. He is neither likable nor attractive, and when Mia falls for him, it's a royal shame. In fact, it does a grave disservice to Mia's character, which is the only creditable thing about this film. Hathaway is a lovely actress, full of verve and spark. Her Mia is too plucky and real to fall prey to Nicholas' slimy solicitations, but the film makes her do it.
But perhaps what's most galling about Princess Diaries 2 is its fake feminist uplift. Much is made of the fact that Queen Clarisse has been a wise and benevolent ruler, even (shockingly) after the death of her husband. Mia's task in the movie (in addition to, of course, falling in love) is to grow into her power and learn to advocate for a new law in Genovia, whereby a princess need not marry in order to ascend the throne. But the initial law is a straw man, contrived by the film merely for the purposes of conflict. In Europe, at least one unmarried queen ruled to great acclaim in the 16th century, and it's hardly a feminist victory that Mia should be able to earn this right in 2004.
Worse, while Princess Diaries 2 is busy congratulating itself for its girl-power fervor, it shills a profligate, fairy-tale fantasy of wealth and privilege. As soon as the film begins, Mia is awash in gowns, jewels and servants. In the castle, she occupies a suite of surpassing opulence, containing a palatial walk-in closet accessed via remote control. Press one code, and three drawers glide open, displaying designer sunglasses. Press another code, and the royal jewels ease away from the wall. A third code reveals the shoes, and so on. Upon encountering this bounty for the first time, Mia exclaims, "I have my own mall!" Which raises the question: How is it empowering for girls to make them crave the very inaccessible and empty things that they've been taught to crave since time out of mind? Here's the answer: It's not empowering for girls. It's empowering for Disney, which rakes in millions by selling the princess dream to girls as soon as they can see glitter. Indeed, at the preview, the Disney publicity juggernaut was in full swing, handing out free hair bands and giving away prizes to kids who could name two Disney princesses and the films in which they "star."
Of course, Princess Diaries 2 is a fantasy. The point is to show how magnificent (and, ahem, "difficult") it is to be royal, precisely because the vast majority of us will never know first-hand. But this film is the worst kind of fantasy, absent of anything remotely real, including emotional authenticity. So determined is Princess Diaries 2 to reward its heroine with every jewel in the fantasy crown that it removes almost all of her agency, shoveling her into a relationship that's wrong while forcing her to pretend that it isn't. Note to Garry: Gilding a lily doesn't make it prettier; it merely kills it.
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