Director Garry Marshall returns to his roots for “”The Princess Diaries.”” Call it “”Pretty Woman Redux,”” or “”Still Nothing in Common.”” He even goes so far as to cast Hector Elizondo, who at last count has starred in at least 10 of Marshall’s films since 1984’s “”The Flamingo Kid.”” Just don’t be so quick to dismiss “”Diaries”” based on the fact that the material is extremely worn, by this same director no less, because it certainly doesn’t make this heartwarming “”ugly duckling”” fable any less appealing.
After an indistinct turn in the Fox TV drama series “”Get Real,”” statuesque newcomer Anne Hathaway makes her big-screen debut as Emilia “”Mia”” Thermopolis, the frizzy-haired daughter of a San Francisco-based artist/single mom/divorcee. At school, Mia belongs to the “”invisible”” group, blending into the background whenever possible with her best friend, Lilly (Heather Matarazzo). All that changes one day when Mia meets her absentee grandmother, Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews), who’s making an unexpected trip through San Francisco. Grandmothers never just “”pop by”” for visits in movies like this, though, and Clarisse is no exception. She has news for Mia that’s a little tough to swallow. It appears Mia’s recently-deceased father, Clarisse’s son, was the prince of the country of Genovia, which makes Clarisse a queen. It also makes the shy, awkward Mia a princess, and she has the opportunity to claim her crown and rule from her father’s throne. “”Diaries”” delivers its premise in what I like to call the “”hurry-up offense.”” Everyone involved knows the situation to be improbable, but no one slows down long enough to question anything. We’ve all come to see the hilarious consequences, and stopping to think would only delay the inevitable. Instead, Marshall simply digs up his proven plot maps and topographies to chart the film’s course straight toward its foregone conclusion. Comedian Larry Miller shows up as a caricature of a gay stylist who transforms Mia from class geek to tre chic. Elizondo plays Mia’s rigid chauffeur/guardian who never lacks for a pearl of wisdom to bestow on the empty slate of a young lady. And an endless supply of physical jokes erupt from Mia’s “”stranger in a strange world”” scenario over the film’s two hours. What’s most surprising, though, is the amount of fun “”Diaries”” still manages to concoct on the laborious path to its predetermined conclusion. For every groan-inducing physical mishap Mia must endure on her journey to the throne, there’s a well-penned line or dialogue exchange lobbed over the plate for the eager cast to smack over the fence. Years of experience in front of the cameras allow the dry as dust Elizondo and the dignified, stately Andrews to reign supreme over this court. Andrews’ performance is the spoon full of sugar that helps this medicine go down. But the new generation, represented by Matarazzo, Hathaway and MTV staple Mandy Moore – also making her feature film debut as Mia’s snobby school rival – are never completely overshadowed, which speaks volumes about their ability. Just don’t be charmed into submission: “”Princess Diaries”” never amounts to more than predictable family fluff churned from the same Disney factory that last year brought you Bruce Willis’ “”The Kid.”” “”Diaries”” doesn’t allow us to forget that excruciating bomb, but it gives us reason to forgive. FINAL GRADE: B By Sean O’Connell August 1, 2001