Irony, circa 2001: Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Disney’s big release for the summer, followed in the footsteps of 1985’s The Black Cauldron and 2000’s Dinosaur as one of their very rare “PG”-rated animated offerings. Three out of more than 40 is a small percentage, though since two of them came out so recently, I’d expect it’ll grow.
On the other hand, Disney’s main live-action flick for the summer was actually rated “G” despite the résumé of its director. Garry Marshall started in TV with family fare like Happy Days, but most of his films have gone toward an adult audience. Most were rated “PG” or “PG-13”, 1991’s Frankie and Johnny, 1994’s Exit to Eden, and 1990’s Pretty Woman all earned “R” designations.
Despite the radical difference in classification, Diaries owes its most substantial debt to Woman. Essentially, Diaries gives us a “G”-rated remake of the earlier smash. While it’s a watchable enterprise, it lacks the charm and chemistry shown during its more prominent older sister.
Diaries focuses on 15-year-old Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway). She attends a posh San Francisco private school where she doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the kids. She has one good friend in Lilly (Heather Matarazzo), and Lilly’s brother Michael (Robert Schwartzman) seems sweet on her, but otherwise, her peers appear to regard her as a total non-entity.
This starts to change when Mia’s paternal grandmother comes to visit. Over her 15 years of life, Mia never met her grandma; indeed, she never knew her father either, although he remained in contact with her through the mail. Mia seems unenthused about her meeting with this long-distant matriarch, but she does it anyway. She soon learns that grandma is actually Queen Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews) of the tiny (fictional) European country of Genovia. Her father was a prince, and this makes Mia a princess.
Many girls would be delighted to learn of their royal heritage, but not Mia, who fears it’ll stigmatize her even more harshly. Clarisse tells Mia that if she doesn’t accept her position as princess, Genovia will essentially cease to exist as a functioning place. Mia wants some time to think it over, and she agrees to let grandma know her answer at a royal ball that will occur in the not-too-distant future.
Since Mia’s not exactly the most stylish gal to walk down the street, a royal makeover occurs, and the frumpy young lady soon turns into a serious babe. Mia spends the rest of the movie getting to know her grandmother and also coping with the public pressures that come with her royal heritage. Though she wanted her status to be a secret, the word gets out, and all those kids who recently shunned Mia now line up to be her friend, including dreamy Josh (Erik Von Detten), the boy for whom Mia has long pined.
Diaries follows the standard story arc for this kind of film. Actually, Diaries is little more than Pretty Woman without the sex. It’s a tamed-down version of that earlier flick, but it dispatches with the charm and chemistry that made the original work.
That probably sounds unfair, but much of Diaries does strongly echo Woman. Many elements were lifted baldly from the older film, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Hathaway bears more than a passing resemblance to Julia Roberts. Marshall seems doomed to continually recreate his most successful flick, though since Diaries and 1999’s Runaway Bride both did pretty well at the box office, I don’t hear any complaints from him.
Well, I’ll complain, for I really liked Pretty Woman but thought Bride and Diaries were nothing more than pale and lifeless rehashes of that film. On the positive side, Diaries is pleasant enough to watch, and it features a decent little cast. Andrews continues to be as charming as ever, and it may have been worth sitting through the rest of the film just to hear her say, “Goodbye, trolley people”. Hathaway’s not a match for the sparkle Roberts shows at her best - though Hathaway’s much prettier - but she seems like a reasonably adept actress who handles the comedic elements well.
However, Diaries suffers from a high level of blandness. Nothing about it makes it distinct, especially because so many of the characters seem flat. Mia’s a fairly ill defined heroine, and none of the others are any better developed. Andrews makes Clarisse somewhat interesting, but she can’t overcome the basic generic quality of the role. With the possible exception of Matarazzo’s quirky Lilly, none of the others seem like anything more than cardboard cutouts, and the males fare especially poorly. Josh is such a transparent jerk that it never makes sense that Mia would like him, while Michael’s little more than an obscure schlub.
Diaries also falls flat because of its excessive running time. A movie of this sort should clock in roughly 100 minutes, not this one’s 115 minutes. That may sound like a minor difference, but it’s not; the extra 15 minutes make the tale drag terribly. Traditionally, Marshall’s films run too long; even a gem like Pretty Woman should have been shortened. However, it had solid chemistry between its stars to lighten the load, whereas Diaries just plods along until its inevitable conclusion.
In the end, I can’t say that The Princess Diaries is a terrible movie, for it’s not. It simply lacks much spark or pizzazz. It kept me marginally interested and entertained, but it never went beyond that level.
Trivia note: while Julie Andrews may have the most famous prior connection to Disney due to her starring role in Mary Poppins, she’s not the only veteran of their “G”-rated fare. Erik Von Detten offered voices in a number of their flicks. His most prominent role occurred when he played nasty young Sid in Toy Story. And now you know… the rest of the story! (Toy, that is.)
The Princess Diaries appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, the DVD presented a good but unexceptional visual presentation.
Sharpness usually seemed very good. A few wider shots displayed minor softness at times, but these examples were infrequent. Most of the film appeared distinct and accurate. Though I detected no concerns related to jagged edges or moiré effects, some mild edge enhancement crept through on occasion. Print flaws stayed minor for the most part, but they did appear. Some light grain showed up on more than a few occasions - especially during interior shots - and a few speckles also could be seen.
Colors appeared nicely warm and natural. The movie featured a pretty natural palette and occasionally favored light pastels that made sense for this kind of project. The DVD replicated the tones with nice vividness and accuracy, and they displayed no noticeable concerns. Black levels also came across as reasonably deep and dense, while shadow detail looked clear and appropriately opaque. As a whole, The Princess Diaries showed a few too many flaws, but it remained fairly solid.
Also positive but unspectacular was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Princess Diaries. Since Diaries wasn’t exactly a slam-bang action piece, I didn’t anticipate much excitement from the soundfield, and the mix met my expectations. The track largely remained oriented toward the front of the spectrum. Up there, the audio showed reasonable stereo imaging for the music, and effects displayed a modest spread across the front speakers. Elements seemed to be fairly well localized and they blended together decently.
As for the surrounds, they stayed quite passive throughout the film. The rear speakers added very mild reinforcement for music and also a little general atmosphere, but that was it, and those elements seemed very restrained. Even the thunderstorm - an event that typically presents good surround usage - stayed stuck largely in the front. The soundfield appeared fine for this kind of film, but it definitely was quite subdued.
Audio quality seemed good for the most part. Dialogue occasionally betrayed a little edginess, but speech usually came across as natural and warm, and I discerned no concerns related to intelligibility. Effects were clear and accurate, and they showed decent dynamics, though the track certainly won’t heat up your subwoofer. Music sounded distinct and bright and also showed good but unexceptional low-end response. Bass was consistently tight and reasonably deep but not very impressive. In the end, the audio of The Princess Diaries was perfectly acceptable for this sort of project, but it still seemed fairly bland.
When Disney announced this DVD of The Princess Diaries, I eagerly anticipated it even though I’d never seen the film and frankly - and accurately - didn’t think I’d much care for it. I looked forward to the DVD for one reason: the extras. And I wanted to check out the extras for one reason: director Garry Marshall. His warm and witty presence greatly enlivened features found on the DVDs of Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride, and I had no reason to doubt he’d do the same for The Princess Diaries.
Most appealing was the audio commentary Marshall provided for the film. His tracks for the two Julia Roberts offerings were absolutely terrific, and I hoped lightning would strike a third time. While Marshall’s running, screen-specific accompaniment for Diaries isn’t quite as good as those earlier efforts, it’s still quite entertaining.
Marshall used to write for comedy shows, and he was the main force behind Happy Days, so his good sense of humor should come as no surprise. Marshall’s a consistently inviting and lively presence as he shticks his way through the movie. He makes the piece consistently fun and enjoyable. I preferred the earlier commentaries to this one simply because they also packed in a lot more information. Marshall’s Diaries spiel is a little light on useful material, whereas Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride were virtual tutorials for comedy filmmaking. Still, it’s a good track that should be enjoyable even for those who didn’t like the film.
Similar sentiments greet the second audio commentary. Billed as “the ultimate tea party”, this one plops actors Julie Andrews and Anne Hathaway together in front of the screen and fills them full of warm beverages as they chat along with the film. As with Marshall’s track, this one seems warm and entertaining but not exactly packed with valuable information. Oh, you’ll learn some fun nuggets about the production, and it’s interesting to get viewpoints from both a revered veteran like Andrews and a fresh face such as Hathaway.
Both seem very fond of each other and they interact nicely. Actually, they blend so well that this piece becomes only sporadically screen-specific. Andrews and Hathaway occasionally branch off into other topics such as their prior work and what Hathaway did on her one day off of the set. Overall, this is a pleasant commentary that gives enough useful details to merit a listen.
Next we find A New Princess, a “behind the scenes featurette” about the film. During this 24-minute and 15-second program, we see the usually mix of film clips, shots from the set, and interviews with principals. In the latter category we hear from producers Debra Chase Martin and Whitney Houston, director Marshall, and actors Hathaway, Andrews, Mandy Moore, Heather Matarazzo, Patrick Flueger, Mindy Burbano, and Robert Schwartzman.
Hosted by Hathaway, “A New Princess” falls in the category of “fluffy but fun”. The program seems light and frothy as it tells us how great everything is, and it doesn’t exactly pack in gobs of information. Nonetheless, it offers sufficient material to make it worthwhile, and it does so in a very enjoyable manner. Marshall repeats some of the information from his commentary, but he’s still compelling, and the others add nice bits. We see some good clips from auditions, and we also get a cute look at the way Marshall kept the set light and happy. One annoyance: we’re told about how Andrews and Houston serenaded Marshall with “Happy Birthday” and we almost see this, but the program omits the crooning. That tease almost seems cruel, but otherwise, “A New Princess” is a reasonably winning featurette.
Better yet are the DVD’s deleted scenes. The disc includes eight of these, each of which comes with remarks from director Marshall. The latter don’t follow the normal commentary format. Instead, videotaped footage of Marshall appears before and after each clip. All told, this section lasts for 18 minutes and 48 seconds including Marshall’s segments.
The deleted scenes are shown in a 1.85:1 ratio with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound but are not anamorphically enhanced. Across the board, the segments seem mildly interesting but not anything special. Considering that the film as released is already too long, I certainly won’t argue that any of these should have remained in the finished product.
Unsurprisingly, Marshall’s material is the best part of this domain. He adds his usual wild and funny remarks as he tells us some background info about the scenes and also relates why they didn’t make the cut. I tell you, it’s a shame that only three of Marshall’s 12 films include substantial extras; I’d even sit through a piece of trash like The Other Sister again just to hear his insights. (By the way, if Buena Vista give us a special edition of Exit to Eden, it could be the greatest DVD ever. The combination of Marshall’s commentary and nude shots of Dana Delany may just be too much for me to handle.)
A few minor pieces round out the DVD. We get two music videos. Myra’s “Miracles Happen” uses the standard format in which she lip-synchs the song while film clips pop up from time to time. The piece features a brief new introduction from Heather Matarazzo, but it’s not a very interesting affair or song.
The second video accompanies Krystal’s “Supergirl”. This is a better tune and a somewhat superior clip. It uses the same format, but it also includes some new material that features Hathaway, Schwartzman, and Von Detten. These shots don’t really go anywhere, but at least they add a little life to an otherwise pretty average video.
Also on The Princess Diaries is the THX Optimizer program. As seen on other DVDs like The Phantom Menace, it purports to help you set up your home theater to best present the movie on the disc in question. Apparently the Optimizer is unique for each DVD on which it’s included; unlike programs such as Video Essentials, the Optimizer should tweak your set-up differently every time. Frankly, I’ve been very happy with my already-established calibration and I’m afraid to muck with it, so I’ve never tried the Optimizer or the Optimode. If you lack calibration from Video Essentials or a similar program, or if you’re just more adventurous than I, the Optimizer could be a helpful addition.
Lastly, in that grand Disney tradition, The Princess Diaries gives us a slew of advertisements. Within the “Sneak Peeks” area, you’ll discover a slew of advertisements for other Disney offerings. Some of these appear at the start of the DVD as well; when the disc begins to play, we find trailers for Return to Neverland, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Cinderella II: Dreams Come True, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Within the “Sneak Peaks” domain itself, we see these promos plus additional clips for the upcoming special edition DVD of Peter Pan, 101 Dalmatians II, The Princess of Thieves, and Child Star: The Shirley Temple Story.
For those who liked Pretty Woman but wish it lacked the raunchy bits, your dream has come true. You can now watch The Princess Diaries, a “G”-rated virtual remake of the earlier hit. Unfortunately, it lacks much of the original’s charm and energy and replaces it with warmed-over gags. To be sure, Diaries seems pleasant enough, but that’s not much of a recommendation. The DVD offers good but lackluster picture and sound along with a fairly nice complement of extras. The Princess Diaries will likely do well with its intended young female audience, but I found the movie to be a bland and unmemorable affair.