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Princess Diaries (Special Edition), The

List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 8, 2004 | E-mail the Author
The Princess Diaries, based on the first novel of Meg Cabot's popular series, was an unexpected smash hit for Disney three years ago. With a budget of $37 million, it went onto gross more than a hundred million dollars domestically, ranking in countless millions more internationally and on home video. With a sequel slated to hit theaters in a matter of days, Disney is stoking the fires by reissuing the original The Princess Diaries with this incrementally more special edition.

Anne Hathaway makes her feature film debut as Mia Thermopolis, a tenth-grader who lives with her Bohemian artist mother in a remodeled firehouse in San Francisco. She attends a private high school, with her tuition covered by a recently-deceased father she'd never actually met. The awkward, frizzy-haired teenager is miserable there, practically invisible to everyone except when she's being tormented by the more popular kids. The only people who pay any attention to Mia are her activist best pal Lilly Moscovitz (Heather Matarazzo) and Lilly's brother Michael (Rooney frontman Robert Schwartzman). Michael quietly dotes over Mia, helping her fix up her '66 Mustang and inviting her to see his band rehearse, all the while without making his feelings for her clear. As her sixteenth birthday approaches, Mia gets a call out of the blue from her paternal grandmother. She'd never really had any contact with that side of the family, and when she scoots over to the address she's handed, Mia's surprised to see that it's the consolate for a speck-on-the-map European country. Her grandmother, Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews), reveals that she's the Queen of Genovia. That makes Mia's late father a prince, which means Mia...:gasp! a princess. She feels betrayed that she's never been told about her heritage, but after Mia simmers down, she agrees to announce on the night of a Genovian ball whether or not she'll spend the rest of her days with a tiara atop her head. In the meantime, her royal status is kept under wraps, and Mia takes lessons from her grandmother to transform herself from a typical teenage girl into a dignified, princess-grade young woman. The secret eventally leaks out, and the newly-made-over Mia becomes the subject of intense media scrutiny, inciting people who'd never given her a second glance to latch onto her and try to soak up some of her unwanted spotlight. Longtime friendships suffer, her romantic fantasies are shattered, and early attempts at royal engagements go horribly awry, causing Mia to question whether or not the life of a princess is the right one for her.

Although a 25-year-old with a passion for Italian horror and decades-old slasher flicks probably wasn't Disney's target demographic, I really enjoyed The Princess Diaries. It's a cinematic confection -- lightweight and not terribly filling, but still very appealing and very sweet. In a lot of ways, it's reminiscent of director Garry Marshall's Pretty Woman, except for that whole hooker thing, or maybe She's All That with a crown and a scepter. Both stories have Pygmalion-ish attempts at refinement, here with a more regal touch, successfully mining a lot of comedy from a standard fish-out-of-water tale. The formula hits a lot of other well-tread stops along the way: overlooking the love that's right under your nose, fame and popularity not being all they're cracked up to be, believing in yourself, responsibility, yadda, yadda, yadda. I can tolerate unoriginality as long as it's tackled well, and The Princess Diaries is able to take these exceptionally familiar elements and create something very appealing. Despite its G-rating, it doesn't pander to a younger audience, and I didn't feel like I was really watching a kids' movie. It deftly interjects some quick, clever lines of dialogue in with a lot of physical comedy, keeping me laughing constantly throughout. Although most of the characters are stock cut-outs, Mia and Queen Renaldi are better fleshed-out, infused with quite a bit of personality by the actresses who portray them. Andrews carries herself with an appropriately regal air. To name just one example, her lilting "goodbye, trolley people!" is a small moment in the movie but such a memorable one. Much of the movie rests on Hathaway's shoulders, and the comparatively inexperienced actress is up to the task. She comes across as likeable and well-meaning, if occasionally irrational and impulsive: in other words, an entirely normal teenager. Aside from being too cute for words, Hathaway pulls off the movie's frequent physical comedy extremely well, particularly her horrified reactions at her own clumsiness. Some of the supporting cast members also shine, most notably Hector Elizondo as the head of the Queen's security-slash-Mia's babysitter, a soap opera scribe named after cold medication who's prone to jotting down narration at every turn, and Larry Miller as an egomaniacal Italian beautician. Even though I'm a relentless nitpicker, I was so charmed by The Princess Diaries that I can't rattle off my usual laundry list of gripes and inane complaints. The only real flaw I feel obligated to mention is that the movie's nearly two-hour runtime feels bloated, dragging on twenty minutes longer than it probably should have. Some scenes, like the interminable beach party sequence with its unnecessary musical number from Mandy Moore's C-plot background villain of a cheerleader, would've greatly benefitted from a little tightening.

Admittedly, The Princess Diaries is predictable, it rehashes a lot of the same stale clich├ęs we've all seen in at least a couple dozen other movies, and some viewers may be bored by its length and approach to comedy. Even acknowledging its familiarity and limited scope, I was completely won over by this endearing, sweetly funny film. The Princess Diaries is a family movie in the truest sense, something I think would appeal to audiences of many different ages.

Video: The Princess Diaries was previously released as two separate editions -- one full-frame, the other widescreen. This new collection includes both versions, each on their own individual disc. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation gets second billing by winding up on disc two, and it's apparently the same three-year-old transfer used for the previous DVD release. It's respectably sharp, though not impressively so, and some of the more distant shots struck me as rather soft. The palette seems natural and accurately represented, appearing fairly vivid when given the opportunity. The image sometimes takes on a grainy quality that can probably be traced back to the original photography, and there aren't any print flaws or assorted wear worth noting. Overall, it's a very good, if rather unremarkable, presentation.

Audio: Each disc includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, encoded at a bitrate of 448Kbps. It's standard issue teen comedy material, meaning that the surrounds are sparsely used (to the point where this might as well have been a 3.1 mix) and the LFE mostly lies dormant. Even with the majority of the action anchored up front, I didn't spot much separation across those channels aside from various bits of music. Dialogue is not surprisingly lavished with the most attention in the mix, and it remains clear and discernable throughout. Even by comedy standards, the mix is fairly timid, but there aren't any major flaws or concerns. Other audio options include a six-channel French dub, closed captions, and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Supplements: The bulk of the extras on this special edition are carried over from the previous DVDs. The re-release is meant to promote the quickly impending sequel, and a free ticket for The Princess Diaries 2 is tucked inside the keepcase. The extras exclusive to this set can all be found on the second disc, beginning with a five minute peek at the sequel with some behind the scenes footage and hints as to what to expect. "Livin' Like a Princess" is a goofy look at actual princesses throughout history, using barely-animated Shrinky Dinks and some genuinely terrible music. There's also a blooper reel (4:21) with the cast bursting into dance, laughing hysterically, flubbing lines, and suffering through the rattle of omnipresent aircraft. Piled onto the DVD-ROM portion of the disc are a screensaver, an image gallery, various links, and an assortment of printable activities.

The remaining extras, all carried over from the previous release, are spread across each of the two discs in this set. The first disc opens with "A New Princess", a twenty-four minute featurette that interviews most of the key cast and crew involved with the movie: director Garry Marshall, producers Debra Martin Chase and Whitney Houston (yes, that Whitney Houston), and actors Anne Hathaway, Heather Matarazzo, Julie Andrews, Mandy Moore, Patrick Flueger, Mindy Burbano, and Robert Schwartzman. The featurette spends a lot of time on courting its director and assembling the movie's cast, and it also gives a strong idea about what a blast it must've been to be on the set. Garry Marshall impressions, footage from a pumpkin carving contest (the entry from the special effects crew is brilliant, incidentally), a Thanksgiving day parade, frequent birthday celebrations...everyone seemed to really enjoy themselves and working with each other, and that definitely comes through with this featurette. It does kind of veer into Mutual Admiration Society territory, and it's not really a hotbed of information on how the project came together so much as to the surface elements of its execution, but it's a fun featurette and is worth checking out.

There are also eight deleted scenes in letterboxed widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, accompanied by introductions from director Garry Marshall. In total, all of the footage runs a little over eighteen minutes. The scenes include Mia asking Clarisse about her nickname in high school, a fairly bizarre puppet-Mia, a newly-coiffed Mia stumbling upon her teacher with his shirt off, a scene with Garry Marshall where Michael and Mia prattle on about their peculiar pizza preferences, Michael wiping an eyelash from Mia's face, a brief shot involving an egg and a harp, Josh's infectiously imitative Banana Dance, and Lana getting a lame comeuppance at the hand of a reporter. Most of these scenes are pretty justifiably deleted, either involving shaky attempts at humor or seeming a little too sappy. I did like the nickname and shirtless bits, though. Rounding out the extras on disc one are music videos for Myra's "Miracles Happen" and Krystal Harris' "Supergirl", both of which incorporate footage from the film and feature brief appearances from various cast members.

Also ported over from the 2001 release are two commentary tracks, found on the second disc of the set. The first pairs Julie Andrews and Anne Hathaway as they enjoy high tea. It's extremely friendly and chatty, and there's just something about interjecting comments about finger sandwiches and hearing teacups clink that make their discussion seem all the more appealing. Hathaway is the more dominant of the two, remembering seemingly every minute detail about everyone and everything on the set. Their conversations bounce around from topic to topic, frequently having nothing to do with what's happening on-screen, but it's an energetic, fun listen. Even better is the commentary with director Garry Marshall. He's just hysterical to listen to, especially the way he'll heavily emphasize random words in each sentence, how he'll just careen off on a tangent, or excitedly point out which of the four different cats is on-screen at a particular moment. He barely pauses to take a breath, churning out a lot of comments about refining the comedy and working with the actors. It's light on incredibly technical details, and Marshall does occasionally fall into the trap of basically narrating what's happening, but his commentary still manages to be both funny and informative.

Each DVD also includes plugs for Disney's Princess home video line, Pixar's The Incredibles, Anne Hathaway's Ella Enchanted, The Three Muskateers, Home on the Range, Witch, and special editions of Mary Poppins and Mulan. Also, both discs feature a set of 16x9-enhanced animated menus, a THX Optimizer, and twenty-seven chapter stops.

Conclusion: The Princess Diaries is a cute, charming, funny movie that should appeal to a wide range of ages. Though there isn't enough new material to warrant an upgrade for owners of the 2001 release, this package -- sweetened further with a free pass to see the sequel theatrically -- comes highly recommended.

Related Reviews: Though he wasn't nearly as smitten with the movie as I was, Aaron Beierle has written a review of the initial DVD release, if you'd like a second opinion.
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