In the seductive adult fairy tale ”Pretty Woman,” a call girl played by Julia Roberts morphs into a fair lady under the attentive ministrations of the john who falls in love with her, a wealthy Pygmalion played by Richard Gere. More than a decade later, ”Pretty Woman” director Garry Marshall hasn’t forgotten the thrill of female transubstantiation – or of box office gratification: In the girl-empowering fairy tale The Princess Diaries, a gawky teenager (played by newcomer Anne Hathaway) morphs into a royal highness under the attentive ministrations of her grandmother (played by Julie Andrews – My Fair Lady herself!), who turns out to be a rich queen ready to turn over the keys to the kingdom of Genovia.
That country may be as fictional as the Marx Brothers’ Fredonia, but a girl’s wish that someday someone will acknowledge her essential regal female self is a powerful fact. And this charming, if unnecessarily coronation-length production gets the duckling-to-swan ambivalence just right. Hathaway’s Mia Thermopolis favors sparkly blue nail polish and lives in San Francisco with her hippie-artist mother (Caroline Goodall), unaware that her late father was an actual prince.
She’s an interesting misfit more akin to the heroine of MTV’s Daria than to the outcast teen girls of ”Six Feet Under” or ”Ghost World,” and in scenes with Mia and her friends (including Heather Matarazzo as her geek-rebel confidante) and tormenters (especially Mandy Moore as a snooty Miss Popularity), Marshall conveys the sense of relentless torment secret princesses endure every day.
He directs Gina Wendkos’ girl-wise script (based on the novel by Meg Cabot) with avuncular affection and, by his standards, a minimum of court jestering, and he encourages moments of appropriate delirium among his large cast. (Sandra Oh’s every moment as a school vice principal is heaven.) Best of all, Julie Andrews reigns, her formidable antiPoppins-ish dignity its own form of hilarity.