Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-action edition. The Princess Diaries

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Princess Diaries

Year: 2001

Source materials: Based on The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot

Budget: $26 million

Box office: $165.3 million

Plot: Shy high school student Mia Thermopolis resides with her single mother, Helen, in a refurbished firehouse in San Francisco. Unpopular among her peers, Mia suffers from a fear of public speaking while harboring a crush on Josh Bryant, and is often teased by his popular girlfriend Lana Thomas. Mia’s only friends are social outcast Lilly Moscovitz and Lilly’s older brother, Michael, who secretly harbors feelings for her.


princess_diaries_3Mia learns from her estranged paternal grandmother, Clarisse, that she is sole heir to the European kingdom of Genovia, having inherited the throne from her recently deceased father Philippe. Clarisse is determined to groom Mia into a refined princess so that she may one day rule the kingdom over which Clarisse currently presides. Overwhelmed by the discovery, Mia initially refuses until Helen convinces her to attend her grandmother’s “princess lessons” on the condition that she need not make her final decision until the Genovian Independence Day Ball in three weeks’ time.


Mia receives a glamorous makeover and a limousine chauffeured by Joe, the queen’s head of security and confidante, who becomes a father figure to her. Mia’s transformation causes her schoolmates to treat her differently, while her increasingly hectic schedule strains her relationship with Lilly. To appease her best friend, Mia tells Lilly the truth and swears her to secrecy. However, the public soon learns that Mia is a princess after the secret is sold to the press by Paolo, the hairdresser responsible for Mia’s makeover, and the paparazzi begin to pursue her relentlessly.


Although Mia embarrasses herself at her first state dinner, the queen admits that she found her clumsiness endearing and suggests that they spend quality time together. While bonding, Clarisse explains that although Mia’s parents loved each other, they divorced amicably in order to pursue their own passions, Philippe remaining in Genovia to eventually become King, and Helen returning to America with Mia to offer her a “normal” childhood.

As Mia’s popularity grows, Josh invites her to attend a beach party with him. Mia accepts, causing her to neglect Lilly and forego her plans with Michael. Josh kisses Mia in front of the paparazzi to bolster his own fame, while Lana helps the paparazzi photograph Mia wearing only a towel; both photographs are printed in the newspaper the following day. Finding the photos inappropriate for a princess, Clarisse admonishes Mia for her behavior, after which a humiliated Mia promises to renounce her title. Joe reminds Clarisse that Mia is still both a teenager and her granddaughter, suggesting that the queen reacted too harshly.


After making amends with Lilly, Mia finally stands up to Lana for bullying a schoolmate. Mia invites both Lilly and Michael to the ball but Michael declines, still heartbroken over Mia’s initial dismissal. After Clarisse apologizes to Mia for scolding her, she states that Mia must publicly renounce the throne at the ball. Terrified by the prospect, Mia plans to run away until she discovers a touching letter from her late father and relents. Mia’s car malfunctions while driving to the ball, stranding her in a downpour until she is retrieved by Joe.


When they finally arrive, Mia, still wet and untidy from the rain, delivers a compelling speech and accepts her role as Princess of Genovia. After changing into a gown, Mia accompanies Clarisse into the ballroom where Michael, who has accepted Mia’s apology, invites her to dance before confessing their feelings for each other and sharing their first kiss. In the final scene, Mia is shown traveling to Genovia in a private plane with her pet cat Fat Louie, and writes in her diary that she plans to relocate to Genovia with her mother.


Background: Cabot’s agent believed that the first Princess Diaries book had strong film potential, and pursued film producer Debra Martin Chase, who had recently co-produced the television film Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, about adapting the book into a film due to their similar “rags-to-riches” and “Cinderella-type” themes. Chase highly enjoyed the book and convinced Disney to adapt the novel into a feature-length production. By August 1999, the film was greenlit by Disney, who agreed to produce it with singer Whitney Houston’s BrownHouse Productions, and Cabot’s manuscript was forwarded to potential screenwriters. Garry Marshall was enlisted as director, with Houston and Chase producing alongside Mario Iscovich.


The tiara and jewelry Andrews wears during the final scene consists of half a million dollars’ worth of diamonds, loaned to the production by jeweler Harry Winston, with whom Jones worked closely to obtain several unique jewels. A security guard followed Andrews at all times to both protect her and ensure that all jewels were returned at the end of each day. Hathaway donned false eyebrows and a wig to make her character’s makeover more dramatic. Hathaway’s hair piece was nicknamed “The Beast”, while her eyebrows required one hour to apply; each strand of hair was glued to her brow individually.the-princess-diaries


Changes from the Source Material: The setting is changed from New York to San Francisco. The character of Mia’s grandmother, nicknamed “Grandmere” in the books, is considerably kinder in the film. Disney’s decision to have Mia’s father be dead in the film is among the most significant deviations from the source material, who in the book is both alive and has a major role. The producers decided to kill off Mia’s father in favor of expanding her grandmother’s role.


Songs: Robert Schwartzman’s band Rooney has a cameo appearance as garage band Flypaper, and perform “Blueside”, one of Rooney’s original songs. Moore recorded a cover of Connie Francis’ “Stupid Cupid”

Cast: Julie Andrews returns as Clarisse Renaldi. Mandy Moore appeared as Lana Thomas before she was in Tangled.

Anne Hathaway as Mia Thermopolis. After her debut in this film, she appeared in Other Side of Heaven, Ella Enchanted, Havoc, Brokeback Mountain, The Devil Wears Prada, Rachel Getting Married, 1 Bride Wars, Valentine’s Day, Love & Other Drugs, Alice in Wonderland, The Dark Knight Rises, Les Misérables, 2 Interstellar, The Intern, and Ocean’s 8. Héctor Elizondo 3 as Joe. Elizondo is best known for his television roles playing Dr. Phillip Watters on Chicago Hope and Ed Alzate on Last Man Standing, and movie roles like Mr. Grey in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Detective Sunday in American Gigolo, Barnard Thompson in Pretty Woman, Fisher in Runaway Bride and Jon Flint in Beverly Hills Cop III.

Heather Matarazzo as Lilly Moscovitz. Her breakthrough role was Dawn Wiener, a dorky girl in the film Welcome to the Dollhouse. Her other movies include The Devil’s Advocate, Scream 3, Sorority Boys, Saved!, and Hostel: Part II. She appeared on several TV shows including Roseanne, Law & Order, The L Word, Greys Anatomy and Strangers With Candy. Caroline Goodall as Helen Thermopolis. Her other film appearances include Hook, Cliffhanger, Schindler’s List, Disclosure, White Squall, and The Best of Me.

The cast also includes Larry Miller, Sandra Oh and the voice of René Auberjonois.

Critical Reception:

  • Ed Park, writing for The Village Voice, reviewed the film as “a modest, enjoyable fairy tale that easily outcharms its animated stablemates of the past decade”, continuing, “The movie hits its timeworn marks with grace and wit, thanks to game gamine Hathaway and an effortlessly regal Andrews.”
  • Calling The Princess Diaries “an ideal family film”, Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times commended Marshall’s ability to “mak[e] make-believe seem real” while describing Wendkos’ screenplay as “skillfully adapted” and praising Andrews’ performance.
  • Awarding the film a B+, Entertainment Weekly film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote that Marshall “directs Gina Wendkos’ girl-wise script … with avuncular affection and, by his standards, a minimum of court jestering, and he encourages moments of appropriate delirium among his large cast”, highlighting Andrews and Oh’s contributions and dubbing it a “charming … production” that “gets the duckling-to-swan ambivalence just right.”
  • Roger Ebert panned the entire film as a “swamp of recycled ugly duckling stories, with occasional pauses in the marsh of sitcom cliches and the bog of Idiot Plots”, finding it predictable, poorly edited and Hathaway too physically attractive to offer a convincing transformation.
  • Salon film critic Stephanie Zacharek reviewed the film as “so aggressively bland and inoffensive that it practically recedes from the screen”. Zacharek is also one of the few film critics to deride the leads’ performances, dismissing Andrews as “so shellacked and precise … that it makes you want to run out of the theater and roll around in the dirt.”

Legacy: A sequel, The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, was released on August 11, 2004, with Garry Marshall returning to direct and Debra Martin Chase to produce the sequel. Unlike the first film, it is not based on any of the books. Most of the cast returned for the sequel, including Anne Hathaway, Julie Andrews, Héctor Elizondo, Heather Matarazzo, and Larry Miller. New cast and characters include Viscount Mabrey, Lord Nicholas Devereaux, and Andrew Jacoby.


The Disneyland Hotel has transformed a bedroom of the Presidential Suite into a re-creation of Princess Mia’s suite from the sequel. The room includes set pieces from the movie.

My take: So this is a cute one. Hathaway, Andrews, and Elizondo elevate the material. Of course the trope of the girl who gets the makeover still looks good even before the transformation.

Available on Disney +?: yes, and the sequel

Next Week:  Cool Runnings