“Amelia Mignonette Thermopolis Renaldi. Princess. Of. Genovia.”
Give a woman of a certain age a microphone (and several cocktails—guilty) and she can easily recite this speech in entirety, each word clipped with Disney-princess gravitas and a wavering, Madonna-esque European accent.
The speech marks The Princess Diaries’ final duckling-to-swan transformation of a movie-mousy California teenager into the poised heir to the throne, but it wasn’t the Princess of Genovia that captivated audiences back when the movie hit theaters in 2001. It was Mia Thermopolis, played with megawatt, Julia Robertsian charm by 19-year-old breakout Anne Hathaway, well before Prada, Catwoman, and a dream in times gone by.
The Roberts comparison doesn’t start and end with a toothy smile and enviably voluminous head of hair. Garry Marshall, who directed the redhead in her star-making turn in Pretty Woman, is at the helm here and casted several collaborators from PW in PD: Héctor Elizondo (similarly paternal) and Larry Miller (similarly campy), as well as Patrick Richwood, Kathleen Marshall, and Allan Kent. And, like Pretty Woman’s famous necklace-box moment, one of Diaries’ most beloved scenes—Hathaway falling to her butt on slippery bleacher stands, a surprised bark of laughter erupting from her—was unscripted, kept in by Marshall to showcase the sheer, Hollywood Sweetheart likeability of his starlet.
That likeability has ebbed and flowed throughout Hathaway’s career—that cringey “It came true!” Oscar speech did much to dull the golden-girl gleam—but in The Princess Diaries, it was full-force, equal parts approachable gawkiness, theater-kid earnestness, and everyday elegance.
Of all the girls that came out of the era’s movie-makeover genre—Never Been Kissed’s sheltered Josie Geller, She’s All That’s spiky Laney Boggs—Hathaway’s effortlessly radiant, quietly quirky Mia is the kind of high-school heroine that would undoubtedly get cooler with age, unlike Diaries’ resident bully, the peaked-at-prom cheerleader Lana (a gamely bitchy Mandy Moore). Mia would be just fine, frizzy hair, framed specs, and fairytale endings be damned.
On the set of Pretty Woman, Marshall famously told Roberts’ co-star Richard Gere: “In this movie, one of you moves and one of you doesn’t. Guess which one you are?” In that film, there was only enough spotlight for one starry smile, one sweetheart of the screen. But in Diaries, Marshall pairs Hathaway with the fairest of ladies: The utterly majestic Julie Andrews as Clarisse Renaldi, Mia’s paternal grandmother and the reigning royal of Genovia, who must put her misfit granddaughter through a how-to-sit, how-to-wave “princess training” before she can don a crown. The then-66-year-old reportedly came out of semi-retirement for the part, returning to Disney for the first time since her own grand movie debut in 1964’s Mary Poppins, and her keenness is palpable.
Sure, between Clarisse’s exacting posture, pronunciation, and polish (“You’re so…clean,” Mia blurts out upon meeting grandma), on paper, Andrews occupies the straight man role of this dreamy double act. But she still relishes in her own moments of slapstick (cable-car hijinks down the bumpy hills of San Francisco) and romance (an intimate dance with Elizondo’s security guard Joe hints that business is mixed with a bit of pleasure for our queen). When it comes to hitting both humor and heart, Andrews has always been a heavyweight champ, and she has a worthy sparring partner in Hathaway, going toe-to-toe in grace, wit, and luminosity.
The strength of that match-up—and its Bechdel-beating girl power—temporarily distracts viewers from all the formulas and familiarities of this conventional AF Cinderella story. (A cameo from the always-welcome Sandra Oh—”Gupta?”—also makes for an effective diversion.) It’s a Pygmalion tale so common that Andrews herself has done it before, as the stage’s Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady back in 1956, time now bending her into the Henry Higgins role here. But there’s something touching, nearly profound, in watching the next generation uphold tradition and assume the throne: Not just with Mia and Queen Clarisse and the Genovian crown, but with Anne and Julie and Hollywood Sweetheart stardom.
There have been rumors about a third movie for years. (We don’t need to talk about 2004’s Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, except to congratulate Chris Pine on his face.) But any sequels will lack that passing-of-the-torch tenderness, that meet-cute between the sweethearts of different generations: a freshly-powdered debutante being formally presented to society and a seasoned dame taking one last turn of the ballroom.
The Princess Diaries was released by Walt Disney Pictures on August 3, 2001. It is currently available to stream on Disney+.