When George Bernard Shaw published "Pygmalion" back in the early 1910s, little did the Irish-born British playwright realize how popular his story would be, especially in Hollywood. For those not familiar with that particular work, it was a comedy about a professor who bets a friend that he can transform a socially maladroit young girl into a grand lady overflowing with couth.
If that basic plot sounds familiar, it should as it was the underlying premise of the 1938 film of the same name, as well as the stage and film musical, "My Fair Lady" and the relatively more recent "Pretty Woman."
Now the venerable story has been tapped once again for "The Princess Diaries," the tale of a socially awkward high school student who get the physical and behavioral makeover when she discovers that she's really the princess of the fictional European principality of Genovia.
Costarring Julie Andrews (who played the makeover candidate in the stage version of "My Fair Lady") and directed by Gary Marshall (who gave Julia Roberts the makeover in his 1990 hit, "Pretty Woman"), the film feels like a junior revamping of the classic tale. Marshall's artificially sweet approach and the presence of Hector Elizondo and Larry Miller only reinforce the feeling that we're watching "Pretty Woman 2," albeit sans the whole hooker angle.
If that sounds like a stretch, consider the following. A young girl with little or no promising future is plucked from obscurity and suddenly finds herself living the high life. Without any social graces, she receives instruction on how to dress and behave properly and cleans up real good, much to the chagrin and envy of her opinionated best friend. From that point on, she must decide whether to maintain this new lifestyle, all while looking for love and ultimately finding her real self.
Of course, all of it's filtered through a high school setting -- complete with mean cheerleaders, dreamy guys and the one young friend who's perfect for her but is overlooked - and a G-rated mentality, resulting in a young chick flick that one could easily imagine airing on ABC's Sunday Night Movie. Since the film's been made by Disney (corporate parent to that TV network), complete with teen favorite pop star Mandy Moore costarring and providing songs for the soundtrack, you'll obviously be seeing just that and listening to its songs should you fall into the targeted audience demographic or have kids that do.
All of that said, the question that remains is whether the film is any good or not, and how well it will play outside the obvious audience. While I can't personally attest to its effect on girls and young female teenagers - although the squeaky "Oohing" and "Aahing" emanating from such viewers behind me at our screening is obviously a good sign - here's my over-simplified analysis.
Simply put, if you're a female, enjoyed or loved "Pretty Woman" and live for or at least don't mind the teen angle, you'll probably find this film to your liking, or at least to some degree thereof. On the other hand, if you're a "typical" male, haven't enjoyed Marshall's previous and often heavy-handed directorial efforts and are tired of endlessly repeated teen and high school stereotypes, you might be better off making another selection. That is, unless your significant other and/or offspring are giving you the evil eye for even thinking about not seeing it with them.
To its credit, the film is loaded with charm, a feel good, fairy tale type aura, and Shaw's basic premise - this time adapted by screenwriter Gina Wendkos ("Coyote Ugly") from Meg Cabot's "original" novel - all of which make it amiable, generally amusing and obviously filled with some potential.
The target audience will probably love watching the socially awkward protagonist - played to TV After School Special perfection by newcomer Anne Hathaway (making her feature film debut after appearing on TV's "Get Real" and who dons something of a young and coltish Julia Roberts thing here) - as well as watching pop sensation Mandy Moore (also making her debut) acting and belting out a catchy tune. There's little doubt that they'll also enjoy the obligatory happy ending.
Those not falling into that demographic may enjoy the presence of Julie Andrews ("The Sound of Music," "Mary Poppins") doing something of a Judi Dench take on a stately woman trying her best to deal with situations and people below her, as well as Hector Elizondo ("Runaway Bride," "Pretty Woman") appearing in yet his umpteenth Marshall film once again playing the social teacher like he did in "Pretty Woman."
Yet, that latter part, as well as the director's sugar heavy approach and reluctance/failure to do anything special with the premise, is what may irk or drive older or more savvy viewers crazy. Since the story is so familiar and predictable and contains characters or character types that we've seen so many times before, many will be hoping and praying that Marshall ("Runaway Bride," "The Other Sister") will do something original or at least interesting with the material.
Alas, that's not the case. Instead, the film gets ever more sloppy, disjointed and, at times, stupid as it progresses through the second half, and wastes Heather Matarazzo (who was a blast to watch in "Welcome to the Dollhouse") in a supporting role. Story elements and developments come too easy and too fast once past the midway hump - although that doesn't seem to speed up the film's nearly two hour runtime - and certain parts simply become too idiotic for the film's own good.
Despite those problems that most critics and older viewers will easily discern, however, the target audience of preadolescent and young teenage girls will probably take to this offering like hungry kittens to a saucer of milk. There's nothing inherently wrong with that and one must applaud the courage to make a non-animated and mainstream G-rated film in today's market.
Nevertheless, while Andrews and Elizondo bring a certain level of class to the proceedings, it's just too bad that the filmmakers didn't pay more attention to delivering a well-made and at least somewhat original film that everyone could simultaneously enjoy and appreciate from a crowd-pleasing and artistic standpoint. As it stands, "The Princess Diaries" achieves part of that, but not enough to warrant being promoted from a Sunday night TV flick to a big screen release or receiving a rating of more than 4 out of 10.