Just five short years ago, Amelia (Mia) Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) was your regular run-of-the-mill teenager. Gawky and awkward with nerdy glasses and hideous braces, she was hardly the most popular girl at her San Francisco high school. Then one day, Mia got a visit from her long-estranged grandmother Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews), who just so happened to be Queen of the small European country of Genovia. Overnight, Mia's life was transformed from rags to riches as she learned that she was a princess. In the middle of classes and trying to land the cute boy and brother of her best friend Lily (Heather Matarazzo), she fumbled her way through Princess 101.
Now some five years later, a lot has changed. She's graduating from college and is returning to her home country, ready to assume the throne by the end of the calendar year following her 21st birthday. All set to learn on the job by watching her grandmother, Mia is shocked to learn that an evil politician by the name of Viscount Mabery (John Rhys-Davies) has other plans for the future of the country: mainly installing his nephew (a distant relative of a past king) Nicholas Devereaux (Chris Pine) as the country's new King. Due to an archaic law which states that a princess must be married before assuming the throne, parliament gives Mia just 30 days in which to fall in love and marry. If she cannot accomplish this task in that amount of time, they will appoint Nicholas to the throne. Mia's only option comes in the form of an arranged marriage, something she frowns upon, but will do in order to serve the small country she's come to know and love. Mia chooses a young and handsome suitor in Andrew Jacoby (Callum Blue) â€" the Duke of Kennilworth â€" but it's immediately clear that the two, while compatible, are never likely to be more than just friends. As Mia learns more about the throne and gets used to the customs and role of being Queen, the Viscount begins his plan to sabotage her by using Nicholas as someone to distract and romance her so that her prospective husband backs out of the marriage. Of course, Mia falls in love with Nicholas, but will she be able to put aside her feelings so that she can rule, or will Nicholas end up King?
The Princess Diaries 2 is another sequel made purely for commercial purposes, which can be both a good and bad thing. In this case it's the latter, as while the first film was fresh, funny, and all-around fun, this one is a by-the-numbers tale which is so utterly predictable that even someone younger than the age of 10 could probably figure out what's going to happen. Most of the key creative talent is back this time around, as director Gary Marshall (of Pretty Woman fame) brings us his second overly sappy and sweet film of the year after Raising Helen, which failed to ignite much of a box office spark only 4 or 5 months ago. Marshall, whose films have a tendency to always run a good 10-20 minutes longer than they should, gives this film a solid by-the-numbers direction, incorporating all the typical aspects one has come to expect from his movies. Instead of streamlining the film, he finds numerous places to include throwaway scenes and shots of the Royal Family's animals, including the overly huge cat Fat Louie (belonging to Mia) and Maurice (belonging to Clarisse). Those shots are topped only by a high number of "oooh" and "awww" moments involving cute young babies and heart-tugging scenes like when Mia stands up for a number of children at an orphanage during the big parade. It's not that these scenes are bad, it's just that they are meant solely to tug at the heart strings and to try and get the teen girl audience to swoon.
Part of the problem with the film is the screenplay by Shonda Rimes (Britney Spears' Crossroads). Rimes is a newcomer to the franchise, having worked on the story with the original writer Gina Wendkos but contributing the screenplay all by her lonesome. Key elements are present, like Mia's awkwardness, and a number of scenes in the film are genuinely funny. It's just that the dialogue is utterly predictable and by the mid-film karaoke dance sequence, in which Julie Andrews makes a much-welcome return to singing, it's just a bit too much to handle. Rimes had a similar scene in Crossroads but that tied in with the story, whereas here it just seems to be an excuse for Julie Andrews to make a long-awaited return to singing. There are a few inspired moments, but for the most part things are very by-the-numbers and I never was fooled for even a second as to who Mia would end up with. Perhaps in a indie film things might be different, but this is as mainstream as it gets, folks, which isn't surprising given the type of audience Disney is trying to attract to this picture. That said, a few of the jokes hit the spot, including one where a young guest at Mia's slumber party arrives with braces and announces that she's getting two diamonds put in, which is met with the response "well that will make them hurt less", as well as a funny sequence involving a wooden leg and one where Mia chooses her prospective suitors from a slide show of "Europe's Most Available Hunks". But as a whole, none of the scenes, good or bad, really stand out, except maybe one moment where an international singing sensation is on hand singing in Japanese. This occurs out of the blue and seems to be included to appeal more to the Asian markets. What's even more surprising is the song appears on the soundtrack, probably once again in hopes of pushing more units in the all-too-important Asian markets.
So if the film has a problematic screenplay, which is uninspired and tired, then what is holding the film together enough to earn my moderate recommendation? The performances. Well, not all of the performances, as some really good talent is wasted in throwaway or roles that are over-the-top or just downright goofy. Still, most of the film exists and works as well as it does due to the high-quality talent that make up the leads. Anne Hathaway, who made her debut in the first film and has only really appeared in a couple small roles since that, is back as Mia Thermopolis. Hathaway has grown up a bit over the past couple of years and handles the changes in Mia's persona with relative ease. Hathaway has a nice presence on the screen, and she comes across as a very real person. Given the comedic nature of Mia and her adapting to the surroundings, comic timing is key and Hathaway has this down in spades. It's good to see her career didn't fall apart after Ella Enchanted, a film in which her performance was the one saving grace. Also delightful is Julie Andrews, who returns as Clarisse Renaldi, the Queen of Genovia and Mia's grandmother. Although the story is more focused on Mia this time around, Andrews shows grace and poise in her on-screen moments. She even recites some of Mia's memorable lines from the first film. Chris Pine and Callum Blue are charged with the roles of enemy-turned-suitor and suitor respectively, and do an adequate if not overly memorable job in their roles. John Rhys-Davies is all right as the evil Viscount Mabery, but his acting is so over-the-top that it's really hard to take him as a villainous individual. Also enjoyable is Hector Elizondo, a fixture in Gary Marshall films, reprising his role as Joe, the head of security. Elizondo has more to do here than in Raising Helen and has strong comedic timing and a serious delivery, which brings on many of the film's more biting laughs.
Also important to the success of the film is the soundtrack, which in addition to a recently released Special Edition of the first film on DVD, will become one of the key marketing items for the movie. For kids' movies and movies aimed at teen audiences, the soundtrack is almost as important as the movie itself. Put together the right one and you'll have moviegoers buying the CD and CD buyers going to the movie. Walt Disney's track record in this area is undisputed and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement soundtrack tries very hard to continue this tradition. Most if not all of the key music in the movie can be found on the accompanying CD soundtrack. From the original American Idol Kelly Clarkson's "Breakway" (co-penned by Avril Lavigne) to the first single release from Disney mainstay and current IT girl amongst teen audiences Lindsay Lohan, this movie has a soundtrack fit for a princess. The Clarkson track plays over a key moment in the film and the Lohan track, while weaker than her songs in last summer's smash Freaky Friday, is still strong enough and carries enough emotional impact to hit the pop charts (the press notes are sure this will be the case). Based on those two songs alone, the disc should sell some serious units. Julie Andrews' return to singing is also included, and though it's certaintly not The Sound of Music calibre, it's good to have a legend singing once again, even if it's in a duet with the dreadful Raven and with backup vocals by Anne Hathaway.
At the end of the day, The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement isn't a bad movie. It's just an unnecessary one. The story of Mia Thermopolis was left with a better ending the first time around and I never felt the need for this installment. Plus it's a bland and uninspired film that seems to be made for the sole purpose of cashing in on the popularity of the first one, as teenage girls love fairy tale-type stories. I was never in pain sitting through it (though the film, like all of Marshall's work is 15-20 minutes too long) but I just never really connected with the story. It simply wasn't fresh and interesting for me. Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews turn in continued solid work, but it's time for the young ingenue to move past this character and into more serious and challenging roles. If you're a fan of the first one and you fall within the target demographic, then you're probably already going to see it regardless of what I or any other cynical or jaded critic may say otherwise. In fact, coming out of both pre-release screenings for this film, audiences were in general very happy with it. It's nothing original or fresh, but it's far from a train wreck. There's better movies out there, but for what it is, Princess Diaries 2 is an all right time at the theater.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.