Fundamentally, much of the Walt Disney Company’s business relies on the idea of wish fulfillment. From the ideas of the princess films to the attractions at the theme parks, Disney promises if you “wish upon a star” your dreams will come true. So, I imagine it was only a matter of time until Disney applied that idea to a modern day setting for young girls.
With 2001’s The Princess Diaries, Disney took the series of books by Meg Cabot and created a new fairy tale by using some old elements. The story of Mia Thermopolis discovering out of the blue that she is a princess is an interesting idea, but not terribly original. The fact that she is an awkward girl who goes through the full Ugly Duckling treatment and becomes a beautiful princess is also to be expected.
The trick, then, is for director Garry Marshall and his actors to create a compelling journey for the characters. To do this,Marshall focused his attention on the relationship between the two main characters, Mia and the Queen, played by Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews, respectively. Focusing the film around the two best actors in the production is key to making The Princess Diaries stand out.
It’s key because, frankly, the rest of the characters are either flat or flat out annoying. Mia’s best friend, Lilly, is an example of the latter, while Mandy Moore’s “popular girl” character is the former. The only real exception to this is Hector Elizondo as Joseph, who managed to embue a sense of passion in a character that could have been a one note joke.
With a story that is predictable, you rely on good performances to carry the weight, and Andrews and Hathaway deliver in spades. This was Julie Andrews’ first film with Disney in decades, and it shot on the same soundstage as Mary Poppins. She had to have been having some awkward feelings, but her portrayal of Queen Clarisse Rinaldi coms off beautifully. Not to be underestimated, Hathaway, in her first movie role, more than holds her own acting opposite Andrews.
It’s the chemistry between these two that made this film a success, along with the ideal pairing of actors with the material. Seeing Anne Hathaway become a princess was a great experience for young girls, because they could imagine that they were in her shoes. That powerful combination of wish fulfillment and great acting is enough to overcome a weak story and make The Princess Diaries an enjoyable watch.