Royal treatment

The Princess Diaries
Starring Anne Hathaway, Julie Andrews and Hector Elizondo. Directed by Garry Marshall.
Rated 3.0 Its “G” rating notwithstanding, there is nothing particularly jejune or immature about The Princess Diaries. This is not to say, on the other hand, that Garry Marshall’s new film comedy is any paragon of grown-up wisdom and tough-minded artistry. But there is something intriguingly old-fashioned about it, and it does function quite nicely as a sentimental comedy with a curiously lively sense of certain traditions.

It’s a Cinderella story of sorts, set in San Francisco and updated for the curriculum of the self-esteem era. It’s also a teen-flick of sorts, but a rare one in which the possibility that middle-aged adults might have valuable advice to convey is a matter of considerable emphasis. While adolescent kvetching just naturally goes with the territory, seemingly archaic notions of duty and honor successfully invade the team domain this time.

In the pivotal aspect of the story, a San Francisco teenager (Anne Hathaway) discovers that she is royalty. Her paternal grandmother (Julie Andrews) is queen of a small European nation called Genovia, and with her 16th birthday approaching, the time has come for Mia (Hathaway) to learn that she is heir to the throne and must be prepared for the role she is about to inherit.

The contrast of royal hauteur and the erratic manners of democratic Americans is one of the larger sources for comedy in Marshall’s film, but the film’s subtext reeks of nostalgia—for royalty, for formal etiquette, for unimpeachable authority. Thus, while Hathaway is the ostensible center of the film, its real heroes seem to be the regal Andrews and her tersely philosophical bodyguard (Hector Elizondo).

The obviously talented Hathaway is cute in all her guises here but not particularly effective with the comic aspects of her role. Heather Matarazzo (who was in Welcome to the Dollhouse) is wonderfully idiosyncratic as Mia’s best and smartest friend. Andrews is funny and persuasive throughout, and Elizondo simply takes charge of the film at several key points.