Directed by: Garry Marshall
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Julie Andrews, Hector Elizondo, Chris Pine, Heather Matarazzo
Yes, I know, I'm supposed to be cranky (which is a nice way of saying I'm curmudgeonly -- and besides, it rhymes). So why don't I hate this sequel to The Princess Diaries like I'm supposed to -- and as most of my fellow critics seem to? I don't know. Maybe I'm just a sucker for movies where Paul Williams unexpectedly pops up in peculiar roles. Or maybe it's simply because The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement is not the kind of slipshod junk done on the cheap that's usually foisted on this target audience.
Compare the sleek professionalism and solid production values of PD2 with the cheese-ridden cheapness of A Cinderella Story. Even weigh it against the more solidly produced, but stubbornly styleless What a Girl Wants from some time back. On that score, PD2 is something like the Citizen Kane of movies aimed at romantically minded 12-to-16-year-old girls.
Sure, as a story, this is weak stuff. Five years have supposedly passed since 2001's The Princess Diaries. Now, at age 21, Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) is about to ascend the throne of the postage-stamp country Genovia, as Grandma Clarisse (Julie Andrews) steps down. But there's skullduggery afoot because Viscount Mabrey (John Rhys-Davies) -- who is introduced to us with such melodramatic musical accompaniment that we know he's a skunk right away -- wants to put his smarmy nephew, Nicholas (newcomer Chris Pine), on the throne. How, you ask? Well, since Genovia was apparently founded on the laws laid down by the writers of The Santa Clause 2, Mabrey decides to invoke the prohibition against an unmarried woman taking the throne. And since Nicholas is next in line ...
However, as in all such plots, there's a loophole. Here it's like a lapsed insurance policy with a 30-day grace period. If Mia can get married in that time, the Viscount's nefarious plans will come to naught. So everything revolves around Mia finding a suitable mate in that time -- something complicated by the fact that she and Nicholas have already "met cute," and she cordially detests him. Remedial movie-going courses are advised for anyone over the age of 12 who can't see where this is going.
The only thing is -- that's exactly where a movie of this sort should be going, so complaining about it is just silly. What makes PD2 more palatable than it might otherwise be is the assured craftsmanship of returning director Garry Marshall (even if here it's less inspired than in the first film). This time, Marshall is a little more hampered by the heavy hand of Disney.
Not only does this mean that Genovia looks just too much like a corner of Disney World, but that they've foisted one of their pre-fab Disney Channel personalities, Raven, on Marshall as well. And -- sweet mother of all presumptuous hooey! -- allowed the diminutive diva to shove herself into the spotlight to duet with Julie Andrews. This is an especially crass move, since so much has been made of Dame Julie vocalizing for the first time in several years.
Plus, the edge of reality that blessed the original Princess Diaries has been dulled to such a degree that what appears to be the world's first garden-party wet-frock contest only winds up proving that Anne Hathaway must be wearing a special industrial-strength bra under that dress.
However, it's fair to say that Marshall -- and his stars -- make the best of the restrictions imposed on them. Even things that looked just awful in the trailer (Julie Andrews "mattress surfing," for instance) come across better in the finished film than we had any right to expect.
Plus, the screenplay by Shonda Rhimes (who must forever bear the onus of having penned the Britney Spears atrocity, Crossroads) constantly tosses little in-joke bones to the adults. There's a nifty reminder of Hector Elizondo's actual nationality, a cleverish gag about the unsuitable nature of one prospective suitor who collects Liberace memorabilia, and the inclusion of a very suspect name for a musical group in a parade sequence (the Mertz Marching Band, under the direction of Lucy Carmichael --OK, so it confuses its TV-trivia eras.)
There are also a few elements that are just strange -- like the guest bit for Stan Lee as a slightly lecherous wedding guest who learned English by watching Three Stooges shorts. It's not exactly inspired, but it helps keep the film from becoming entirely predictable.
At worst, The Princess Diaries 2 is simple romantic fluff that at least doesn't shortchange its target audience in the usual condescending manner.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke