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‘Diaries’ formula still works

Disney mixes ugly duckling plot with pre-teen feel that comes up roses

The theater is packed with eight-year-old girls and their grandmothers. The moment I see this, I realize exactly what kind of movie I am about to review. “The Princess Diaries” is a new live-action release by Walt Disney Pictures.

The modern fairy tale, by “Pretty Woman” director Garry Marshall, stars Anne Hathaway as Mia Thermopolis, an introverted, unpopular, but quite individualistic 15 year old. Thermopolis is content with her life as the daughter of an artist mother living in a revamped San Francisco firehouse and dealing with daily teen annoyances like orthodontic retainers and frizzy hair.

Out of the blue, however, Thermopolis’ grandmother, whom she has never met, arrives in town in a limousine and drops a bomb on the unsuspecting girl. It turns out that this long-lost grandmother, played in classic style by Julie Andrews, is the queen of a distant country called Genovia. Now she has come to invite Thermopolis to take her rightful place on the throne as princess.

Of course, Thermopolis is anything but thrilled about the idea. And so the plot advances.

“The Princess Diaries” is interestingly constructed. There is obviously the ugly-duckling-turns-to-swan Disney feel about it, but it is also made in the fashion of similar teenage movies such as “She’s All That” and “10 Things I Hate About You.” The result is a high-school type movie that caters to a younger audience — a “pre-teen-bop” flick, if you will.

To enforce this, there are precisely derived characters and events supporting the plot. Thermopolis has at least two guys to deal with, one whose love is sincere, and the other whose is not. She also has an “ultra-popular” rival who conspires against her — an irritating bubbly character played by singer Mandy Moore — surely a huge stretch on her acting abilities.

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Though this is a fairy tale, it must also be modernized in several aspects. So, at one point, the queen tells Thermopolis that being a princess is more than just being pretty and going to parties; there is also the responsibility of running a country. And for the young girls in the audience, Thermopolis is a strong, balanced role model.

“The Princess Diaries” is not poorly done. Despite the juvenile story, the script is clever and entertaining enough for people over the age of 11. It can be best described as a film that touches the hearts of young girls who dream of being in high school but fantasize about princesshood as well. The oddest part to me was the eruption of applause from the audience that broke when the final scene went to black.

I suppose it was sweet — I took a date with me, but perhaps that extra movie ticket would have been much more appreciated by my grade-school niece.

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