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May 13, 2006 | Comments ()



A Hackneyed Story, Lazily Told

The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement / Jeremy C. Fox

Film Reviews | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()


Why is it that filmmaking intended for younger viewers is so consistently lazy? Most movies made for a mass audience are full of overused plot devices and jokes creaky with age, but it seems that when the assumed viewer is younger than, say, 25 years old, writers and directors don’t even feel the need to put a new spin on an old joke. Disney’s The Princess Diaries 2 is guilty of this assumption beyond all imagining. When director Garry Marshall trotted out cast members and even jokes from his own Pretty Woman in the first Princess Diaries, it was almost cute, a wink to the audience that he knew what he was up to: the first film was Pretty Woman with a nerd instead of a whore for a heroine. This time it’s just gross, and I found myself recoiling in disgust when Allan Kent delivered his famous line (“It happens all the time.”) for the third time. This isn’t just lazy, it’s somewhere between self-cannibalism and masturbation, two things a well-mannered director does not do in public.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. Marshall has never been much of a director; he’s far too drawn to cutesiness and pandering, but it seems than in his senescence he’s given up any illusion of trying to do more than crassly manipulate an audience. What really galls is his abuse of Julie Andrews. She’s in The Princess Diaries 2 more than she was in the first movie and is used to much more humiliating effect. She’s made the butt of so many pointless, cruel jokes that one is tempted to leave the theater rather than endure another. I got the feeling that Marshall must resent her for being superior to the production. And it’s not just the variety of jokes at her expense; rather, it’s the lack of variety. In Airplane!, it was funny to hear Barbara Billingsley talking jive as if it were second nature, but it was only done once. In this movie, we’re subjected to scene after punishing scene of Andrews’ stilted use of her granddaughter’s lingo, and Marshall doesn’t have the kind of comic mind that can make an unfunny joke funny through repetition. The painful coercion of her character into a romance with Hector Elizondo, with whom she has no screen chemistry whatsoever, is an insult to her but even moreso to him, forcing his character into the kind of special pleading that’s particularly embarrassing in a man who carries himself with such dignity.

The one scene given to showcase Andrews’ gifts, in which she sings onscreen for the first time since the throat surgery that almost ruined her voice (it’s not as full as it once was, but it is still lovely), is undercut by the cross-promotion of a Disney Channel star. They speed up the tempo of the song and force Andrews to duet with the unappealing young actress now known only as “Raven” (formerly Raven-Symone of “The Cosby Show”), again begging us to laugh and how stodgily elegant and unhip this grandmother is.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the plot already, and if you haven’t, well, you still know it. It’s the hackneyed story where the protagonist must marry in order to receive the inheritance, in this case the throne of a tiny European country somewhere in the middle of Orlando, Florida. Never has a Disney production looked more like a Disney production, with all the phony, idealized trappings of Cinderella’s castle. The sets and obvious matte paintings are stunning in their cheapness. This is an embarrassing, nouveau riche idea of luxury, with fine tapestries and furnishings that might well have come from the sale aisle of TJ Maxx.

The lax conception of their quaint little papier-mâche monarchy extends to the casting of the bit parts. Lifelong residents of Genovia speak with American, French, Italian, and British accents, with no attempt to explain or even acknowledge the difference.

In the lead role, the pleasant Anne Hathaway is even more of a nonentity than she was in the first film. Absent her dramatic makeover, she’s given almost nothing to play. Hathaway isn’t bad, but she isn’t really good, either, and it’s easy to imagine a half-dozen different young actresses in the role without really noticing any difference. The other actors fare no better, playing the kind of stock characters that are best left where they came from, somewhere in 1933.

More than half the movies that arrive in any given week are just as obviously commercial products with no artistic aspirations, so why did this one get under my skin so much? I think it comes down to intent. In a typical big, crappy summer movie, you sometimes feel the filmmakers’ disinterest in the audience, but in The Princess Diaries 2 the feeling is more like active contempt. “Here,” they’re saying, “you stupid kids will take this and like it because you don’t know any better.” My great fear is that they may be correct.

Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.

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