It’s largely clean, it’s funny, it’s endearing and it harks back to a time when movies were meant to be enjoyed, not torn apart by critics looking for hidden meanings.
It’s a little girl’s dream. It’s a high school girl’s dream. OK, let’s be honest, it’s a grown woman’s dream, too. Pretty much every female on the planet has thought, at one point or another, about being swept out of her ordinary life by the sudden proclamation that she is not a mere mortal, but a princess. Even us guys have the occasional princely muse. And that’s where Mia Thermopolis comes in. She embodies that fantasy for us all.
Drab, commonplace, invisible Mia is just your ordinary teenager. She wears a uniform to school. She gets freaked out at the prospect of giving a speech in front of her class. She gets made fun of by the in-crowd. Her eyebrows are too bushy. Her hair is hopelessly out of style. She wears too-thick glasses. Then one day her grandmother comes for a visit. But she’s not your ordinary grandmother. She’s the Queen of a small (fictitious) country named Genovia (think Monaco). Grandma informs a bewildered Mia that she is the last surviving heir to the Genovian throne and she must immediately begin training for her duties as a princess (her eyebrows are the first things subjected to the will of the crown).
Mia’s not so sure she’s thrilled with her new life (she’s gotten pretty comfortable with her invisibility), but she agrees to undergo training until "the big ball" during which she must accept or decline her country’s highest position. Naturally, Mia’s a klutz, so the beauty and grace lessons she must endure are far from sedate. But she’s a jewel of a person on the inside, and her grandmother sees her true potential from the very start.
positive elements: It’s an old-fashioned story crowded with moral lessons, honest ideals and true love. It’s Happy Days with 21st century characters and production values. And best yet, it’s not overly preachy or dry. The lessons flow unpretentiously from the actions of Mia and her family and friends. For instance, the movie’s writers use the fact that Mia’s mother kept her heritage a secret to make a point about families being honest with each other. "Families don’t lie to each other or ignore each other for 15 years," Mia wails.
Writing for the Philadelphia Daily News, Francesca Chapman criticizes the movie’s "transformation" scenes, saying that "its message about physical beauty is frustrating, and you might want to think twice before taking any curly-haired, eyeglass-wearing child to see it." On the contrary, it’s Mia’s metamorphosis that is the platter upon which most of the film’s positive elements are served. Mia doesn’t want new hair, new makeup and contact lenses. They’re thrust upon her by royal dictates. That’s an important point to see clearly. Her friend, Lilly, is at first appalled that Mia seems willing to sacrifice her inner strength and character to "beautify" her body. "You’re an A-crowd wannabe," she says accusingly. "Who knows, maybe next week you’ll be waving pom poms in my face." Fortunately, Mia is sensitive to such concerns, sharing her friend’s strong apprehension about what her new image will do to her.
Of course she’s tempted to take advantage of her newfound allure and celebrity to cash in on a longtime crush she’s had on a "jock." But when she does she quickly learns he’s not really interested in her, he’s just attracted by her "position." At the risk of spoiling part of the ending, it’s necessary for me to allude to a grand scene in which Mia turns her back on all the newly interested boys and instead picks the boy who, as she so eloquently puts it, "saw me when I was still invisible." Another lifeline offered here for teens struggling with body image is the idea that no one can make you feel inferior without you letting them do it.
True enough, no one seeing The Princess Diaries is going to have an unknown family member bestow royalty upon them. And mere makeovers won’t change the way millions of teens think of themselves or others. But the point being made here is deeper than all of that. The change from ordinary to extraordinary is both physical and mental for Mia. The physical just serves as a visual way to illustrate what’s going on in her heart and head—most "curly-haired, eyeglass-wearing" children are bright enough and resilient enough to understand that.
Mia realizes that serving others trumps personal agendas. That attitude of servanthood even trumps her fear of public speaking ("bravery is understanding that there are things that are more important than your fear") and supersedes the glamour and glitz of the royal life. Indeed, the only reason to accept the role of princess, she ends up concluding, is to do good in the lives of people.
spiritual content: Witnessing a fender-bender, a nun calls 911 after exclaiming, "For the love of God." There are a couple of references to practicing Yoga and feng shui.
sexual content: Only the vaguest of innuendoes (a couple of them homosexual). Queen Renaldi’s security officer, Joe, remarks that San Francisco is an odd place because when he bought Mia a pair of pumps the store clerk asked him if he wanted them gift wrapped or if he wanted to wear them. After a hairdresser leaks the fact that Mia is a princess to the press, he apologizes for "outing" her. Elsewhere, jealous schoolmates hope to embarrass Mia by toppling a changing tent she’s occupying on the beach. Thankfully she’s wrapped in towel when the tent collapses. Mia visualizes a boy kissing her after watching him kiss another girl. Noting her glazed expression, Lilly quips, "You never saw two idiots exchange saliva before?"
violent content: Slapstick hijinks include waiters tripping over each other and food flying into far corners of a room. Mia hits her gym teacher with a softball and line drives a pitch into a boy’s gut. She loses control of her Mustang and it backs into a trolley car on one of San Francisco’s steep hills (no one is injured). And she hits a deserving boy with her shoe.
crude or profane language: None.
drug and alcohol content: A lord drinks too much brandy at a reception (he’s warned to go easy). Champagne and wine are served at dinners.
other negative elements: Mia’s school oppressors—namely the cheerleaders—make a rude joke about bulimia. Beyond that, Mia is the product of a divorced family (her mom chose to leave her husband in favor of creating her art and raising her daughter away from castle life). The motivation seems noble, but divorce rarely solves problems, and is treated here as a much smaller deal than it is. One other minor point: possessing only a learning permit, Mia drives her car illegally without an adult.
conclusion: The Princess Diaries isn’t art. It’s not a probing social commentary. It’s not even brilliant filmmaking. But it’s largely clean, it’s funny, it’s endearing and it harks back to a time when movies were meant to be enjoyed, not torn apart by critics looking for hidden meanings. It’s something that’s been mostly missing from the big screen for a long time: family entertainment.