Page to Screen: The Princess Diaries (2001)


The Princess Diaries
based on the novel by Meg Cabot


2001 • 115 minutes • Buena Vista Pictures

If, by some strange and vengeful act of God, every Disney Channel Original Movie was wiped from the face of this earth, we could probably reconstruct them using The Princess Diaries. Despite its theatrical release, its Whitney Houston production credit, and the good name of Gary Marshall back when that meant something other than another American rendition of Love Actually (Mother’s Day, coming to theaters April 26th, I am literally not joking), The Princess Diaries is nothing if not the platonic ideal of the DCOM: glossy, sweet, and fun, complete with the optional side order of a big star (Julie Andrews) gracing a smaller production with her presence.

It’s so sweet, in fact, that I remember being very disturbed as a preteen by the discovery that the Grandmere found in Meg Cabot’s novel (upon which the film is based, obviously) bares little resemblance to Julie Andrews’ kindly Queen Clarisse. I mean, she’s amazing—tough as nails, glamorous, and a fan of permanent makeup—but she’s, you know, different.

If you are, for some reason, not a Millennial lady type who saw this at a tender age and imprinted on it, let me catch you up: The Princess Diaries is the story of Mia Thermopolis, a fifteen year old unpopular self-described “nobody” who lives in San Francisco with her artsy mother and spends her days hanging out with her best friend Lilly Moscovitz, suffering the taunts of the popular Lana, and dreaming about Josh, Lana’s boyfriend. When her semi-estranged paternal grandmother comes to visit, Mia learns that she is, in fact, the only heir to the throne of Genovia, a tiny country in Europe. After an understandable explosion (“I can’t be a princess! I’m still waiting for normal body parts to arrive!”), an agreement is reached—Mia will undergo princess lessons and then decide if she wants to accept the throne of Genovia.

(I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that the book series ran for fifteen years and twenty-one books.)

For all that set-up, it’s a pretty straightforward makeover scenario, with just enough self-awareness to keep it from buying too hard into a very narrow and toxic narrative of femininity. Mia only really comes to terms with being a princess once she and Lilly talk about how the position will give her actual power in the world to affect change. Queen Clarisse talks about how being a princess (or princesse, as Julie Andrews pronounces it) is about more than looking pretty and getting married. And there’s certainly still something sweetly subversive in Mia’s romance with Lilly’s brother Michael, when he gets to be Mia’s Manic Pixie Dream Boy at the end. Still, this is a film where a girl with curly hair, big eyebrows, and glasses undergoes a makeover that makes her “acceptably” feminine. As far as feminist Disney entertainment goes, Maleficient it ain’t.

But what The Princess Diaries gets remembered most fondly for is its comedy. (I don’t consider the obvious ADR’ed punch-up lines that sprinkle the film comedy, by the by.) Anne Hathaway, in her first film role after a stint on the short-lived television show Get Real, is adorable and effervescent, and she plays so well off of Andrews and the rest of the cast. It’s all very soft and gentle comedy; everybody’s just having such a wonderful time, especially in the delightful subplot of Clarisse and her bodyguard beginning to acknowledge their romantic tension after, presumably, decades. (“You’ve been wearing black too long” is possibly the smoothest and bluntest way to hit on a widow or widower. Rating: advanced, use with caution.) The sharpest gag in the entire film is a visual gag where Mia begins fantasizing about making out with Josh whenever he talks to her, which is how she misses the obvious fact that he’s a complete tool. And, ultimately, that kind of sort, bubble gum humor is why this film holds up, even as its fashion very specifically dates it (“Mia, no, he has frosted tips!” I may have tried to warn her at one point) and its factory shine screams carefully calcucated Disney product. It’s still fun to hang out with Mia and Clarisse.

I do, however, doubt that the same can be said for The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, but that movie has John Rhys-Davies, so… it’s kind of the same, right?

This DVD was rented from the public library.

10 thoughts on “Page to Screen: The Princess Diaries (2001)

  1. I watched this when I was a junior in college, I think. I mostly just remember being annoyed that her curly hair was straightened and having a mini-rant about it to my roommates. I think I did read the first book in the series? And I think I tried another by Meg Cabot as an adult and realized that the time when I would have appreciated it had passed.

    “Mia, no, he has frosted tips!” – ha ha!

  2. I just love this movie, flaws and all. It’s on my list of movies that make me feel better about the world. I adore Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews so much. I loved the ways in which it managed to be subversive and I forgive it for it’s Disney heavyhandedness.

  3. I remember when we watched this at home, someone calls Mia a frizzball and my mother (who has very curly hair and always has) screamed THAT IS WHAT THEY CALL YOU. Truth in television! It’s been years and years since I saw this film, but my sister got it on DVD for Christmas, so a rewatch will soon be in order.

  4. I read these books when I was somewhere in the target audience age, so they made an impression on me–and I was a bit thrown by how much the movie changed.
    She’s a lot less sweet, but I think I like the book grandmother better–she’s got character!

  5. Huh, I think my previous comment got eaten by the internets so here we go again. *g*

    I was slightly out of the target audience for this movie so it didn’t imprint on me the way, say, Legally Blonde did in my early 20 or Clueless did in high school. Overall, it was a sweet movie with tons of wish fulfillment typical of that kind of film.

    That said, my one gripe with it was when Mia became “princess-worthy” after getting her hair straightened out. As someone who had a tough time overcoming the fact that my hair is curly, I couldn’t help but side-eye the message of “having curly hair = not being pretty or desirable”. Aside from that, like I said, I thought it was a pretty decent movie.

    Mia, no, he has frosted tips!

    LOL, I said THE SAME THING when I first watched it. Those frosted tips are like the subtext signal that the dude’s a jerk. XD!

    • EXACTLY. It does pack in some side messages about beauty norms that I am not thrilled by.

      I need to read up on why frosted tips were a fashion thing in the nineties. Like, I can understand a lot of fashion trends—BIG EVERYTHING in the eighties in an excessive and economically booming culture, youth and mod culture in the sixties—but frosted tips seem so weirdly specific. I wonder if it’s to do with trying to market home hair color kits to men?

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