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Princess Lessons: How The Princess Diaries (2001) Took Me From Adolescence to Adulthood
A coming-of-age film that doesn't punch down.
First, let me say that when it comes to The Princess Diaries, I am deeply biased. As a born and bred San Franciscan who remembers seeing this film in theaters in 2001, there is, in my opinion, no better San Francisco movie out there, (Ok, The Conversation is probably better but we’re not feeling high-brow today!) The film stole my heart and has not given it back. It is without a doubt one of the first films that felt like it was for me, which is no accident. Disney was trying to capitalize on the success of 1997’s The Parent Trap by making more live-action features about and marketed to young girls. And they got me good.
A notable departure from other princess flicks in theme, setting, and tone, the film was the perfect antidote to the glossy animated fairy tales of yore. This is not a film about a princess finding true love. It’s about a goofy, shy teenager who would rather evaporate than have anyone notice her, let alone be a princess. In fact, she runs full tilt in the opposite direction, so convinced is she that being a princess will ruin her life. As Mia Thermopolis famously recites midway through the film, “I don’t want to rule my own country, I just want to pass tenth grade!” She’s a princess who isn’t popular, but who is still deeply cool in an alternative kind of way that feels universal but also specific to the Bay Area. She works at a climbing gym and lives in a refurbished firehouse for Christ's sake! But this is still Disney, albeit with a funky Y2K veneer, and so Mia’s journey from wallflower to world ruler becomes one of ascension, to the throne of the fictional country of Genovia and into the confident young woman she chooses to be. She still wears a tiara and ballgown in the end, but she also conquers high school bullies and passes gym class. Powerful stuff for those of us entering our “awkward phase”!
If you are one of the few people on earth who are not familiar with the premise, it is this: Mia Thermopolis is a high school sophomore who, a few months after the death of her estranged father, learns that he was, in fact, the prince of Genovia - and she's a princess. Her distant grandmother, the queen, breaks the news and informs her that in a few weeks' time, she must learn to be a royal and decide whether or not to take the throne. Adapted from Meg Cabot’s novel, the far-fetched concept lays the groundwork for a comedy of manners/coming-of-age fairy tale for the twenty-first century.
The film was released in the summer of 2001, and was a box office smash, spawning the much sillier sequel The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement three years later. Directed by Gary Marshall of Pretty Woman fame (who brings his makeover montage chops to this film as well) and produced by none other than Whitney Houston (yes, you read that right), the film marks the debut of Anne Hathaway and the grand return of Julie Andrews to the house of the mouse. A very respectable and very funny script was penned by Gina Wendkos, best known for writing Coyote Ugly. Wendkos threw some all-time great quotes into the film, notable among them: “I can’t be a princess, I’m still waiting for normal body parts to arrive!” and, “Goodbye trolley people!” Rounding out a stellar supporting cast are Hector Elizondo as the stony-faced but romantic head of security for her majesty the Queen, Heather Matarazzo and Robert Schwartzman as best friend and love interest respectively, Mandy Moore as the resident mean girl, and of course the divine Sandra Oh as Vice Principal Gupta, who leaves no scene un-stealed. Who can forget her unequivocally iconic delivery of, “The queen is coming…to Grove High School.”
I could write ad nauseum about what makes the film so charming and enduring, but ultimately what makes it a great teenage movie is how it avoids the pitfalls of other films in the genre. First and foremost, this is a film about teenagers, for teenagers. So many teen films veer into the “adult” category to an almost worrying degree. Think Cruel Intentions, The Breakfast Club, or Superbad. These are films about high schoolers that are for adults first, and often sensationalize the hormone-fueled debauchery of the time. And there’s little affection for the plight of young girls. Others, like Say Anything or Love, Simon, double down on the saccharine, while others still turn the high school campus into a literal horror show (Jennifer’s Body, Carrie). None of these approaches are wrong, I love many of the above films, but the truth is high school is a mix of all of these things for all of us, and most movies about high schoolers, particularly about high school girls, don’t have much interest in their interiority or complexity. The Princess Diaries manages to capture the growing pains of adolescence with honesty and humor, without sacrificing its G rating.
For a film with an objectively Hollywood premise, it’s grounded in the everyday struggles of being a teenage girl. Mia wears a retainer! Mia is bullied for her appearance and personality! Mia crushes on a guy who will never notice her or appreciate her for who she is! She has romantic teenage fantasies about her first kiss and learns the hard way that you can’t always trust those hormones to lead you to a fulfilling romantic connection. Ultimately though, this is a story about a girl who has to choose between comfort and change, something every teenager experiences to some degree.
Which brings me to the makeover sequence. While attending “princess school” with her grandmother to prepare her for the upcoming Genovian Independence Day Ball, Mia undergoes a physical transformation that traces a very well-worn trope in the genre. The frumpy, awkward girl takes off her glasses, gets a new hairdo, and is magically transformed into a bonafide beauty. Even at the time, some critics winced at the ugly duckling to lovely swan arch that Mia’s character follows. It should be said that no one needs a blowout or a makeover to be beautiful or worthy. It’s an easy and safe shorthand to lead the audience through a chunk of Mia’s journey from girl to young woman, but one that plays into conventional standards of beauty and femininity. That said, the sequence really works, and by the end of the film it’s a footnote in her larger journey of self-discovery. It’s a Gary Marshall film after all, the king of makeover montages, and we need not always be denied the simpler pleasures of a glow-up. Furthermore, it’s in line with the ways teenage girls navigate their changing bodies and identities, and experiment with how to express that. Most every girl engages with traditional femininity and feels pressure to do so at this age. It’s not an easy thing to make sense of, but neither is being a woman!
The movie so accurately depicts that excruciating stretch of time between puberty and adolescence when every aspect of who you are feels fraught. Nothing looks right or fits right, everything is embarrassing and high school is the absolute worst. The version of yourself you thought was safe and comfortable in childhood is now a minefield. Everyone expects something different from you, and the only thing you’re sure of is your own inability to meet those expectations and still feel sane. Am I reading way too much into a twenty-two-year-old movie that is essentially a makeover Cinderella story? Perhaps! But when I watch the film now, I remember how deeply I resonated with Mia’s struggle to feel comfortable with herself, the conflict of wanting to be special but also wanting to fit in. Of feeling so invisible and feeling so exposed. That’s high school in a nutshell. Not to mention, Gary Marshall lends an experienced and sophisticated level of comedic nuance that still holds up. Unlike other films for teenage girls, the movie manages to laugh at the foibles of girldom without punching down or patronizing. A rare feat, even now.
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