The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement

(2004) ** G
115 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Director: Garry Marshall. Cast: Anne Hathaway, Julie Andrews, Hector Elizondo, John Rhys Davies, Heather Matarazzo.

The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement is slightly less...well, slightly less good than its 2001 forebear. If that doesn't deter you, nothing will, and I invite you to enjoy another unsinkable Garry Marshall film. If a movie less good than The Princess Diaries hardly seems possible to you, you'll want to avoid the spectacle of Julie Andrews mattress-surfing down a giant slide.

Garry Marshall the man is invariably more likeable than a Garry Marshall film, though his personality and old-fashioned comic tastes always seems to be struggling to break free from each commercial-minded comedy he makes. The Marshall who would be content to simply allow Julie Andrews a quiet moment to sing "Your Crowning Glory" (a big deal after a botched 1997 throat surgery rendered her virtually pipe-less) gives in to the Marshall who just has to soup the scene up by turning it into a dance-beat duet with Disney Channel-star Raven. Sigh.

The sequel picks up with Anne Hathaway's Mia Thermopolis now a 21-year-old college graduate poised to assume the fictional European throne of Genovia. In an initial narration, Mia confides, "The one downer in my fairy tale is I've never been in love." Whoops: scratch the first film's Robert Schwartzman; Mia and Michael are "just friends now." This unsurprising twist allows Marshall to reboot Princess Diaries.

Again, Mia must prove herself ready to lead a new-milennium royal family, and again, she must fall in love. At minimum, she must marry or, due to an outdated Genovian law, forfeit her claim on the throne and thereby disappoint her grandmother, Queen Clarisse (Julie Andrews, looking haggard around the edges). Spearheading the effort to make Mia fail are two new characters: villainous Viscount Mabrey (John Rhys-Davies of Lord of the Rings) and his dashing son Nicholas (Chris Pine), who's somehow next in line for the throne.

Though Mia quickly selects a nice-guy stiff to marry, the audience just as quickly realizes that part-time cad, full-time hottie Nicholas will show his true colors and spark with Mia; as such, the movie wholly lacks dramatic tension for anyone over the age of six. Marshall pitches his G-rated movie low, but Princess Diaries 2 is questionable children's entertainment all the same.

Its shtick and syrup will go over easily, but the story wallows in wealth (check out the scene in which Andrews introduces Hathaway to her new digs). In the first film, just as in this year's The Prince and Me, the princess has to weigh glamorous glitz against the sensibility of a royal lifestyle. Now that Mia has made that choice, we're stuck in an insular world of privilege and secret-passageway blarney. It's enough to make one pray for a Roman Holiday escape to a more real world.

For the most part, Marshall plays it very safe with Princess Diaries 2. Before its over, most of the original cast has popped up, including Hector Elizondo as the queen's puppy-dog bodyguard and Larry Miller as a fey hairdresser. Marshall crams in oddball cameos, from Stan Lee as a Three Stooges obsessive to Tom Poston and Paul Williams as Parliament members.

You have to give it to Marshall when it comes to non-sequitur jokes (like a royal partygoer who enthuses, "I hope they have string cheese") and other goofy amusements (try to resist the throwaway scene in which Andrews teaches Hathaway how to use a fan). Hathaway continues to show a talent for physical comedy, and Marshall makes comedy cheerleaders of two enthusiastic maids.

The sequel's climax substitutes wedding jitters for public-speaking fearfulness. A speech is still forthcoming, one that takes a not-so-controversial stand against arranged marriage. The single best moment of Princess Diaries 2 is a quick gesture by Andrews, who gives a petite schoolgirl shudder upon an invitation to love. Her tentative vocal return likewise proves she's more magnetic than anything or anyone else in the picture.

Midway through the film, screenwriters Gina Wendkos and Shonda Rhimes hasten to prove that Mia can connect with the Genovian little people, but their unseemly solution is to have her buy toy tiaras for orphans (the first one's always free). In doing so, Wendkos and Rhimes remind us that The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement is just another day, another dollar for Disney's lucrative business of breeding young girls to be ever-longing dream princesses.

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