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By Pete Vonder Haar | August 12, 2004

Never has the divide between male and female audiences been as apparent as with this week’s “Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.” The film is tailored specifically for the preteen girl market, and is brazenly unapologetic about it. Older women may find themselves divided over the movie’s theme, but will probably enjoy a few chuckles. Anyone with an active Y-chromosome, on the other hand, is advised to make whatever excuse he can muster to stay out of the theater. This includes mowing the lawn or cleaning the grout in his bathroom.

Picking up a few years after the original “Princess Diaries,” the sequel begins with the graduation of titular princess Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) from college. As the credits roll, she boards a private jet bound for Genovia to take over for her grandmother, Queen Clarisse (Julie Andrews), who is stepping down from the throne. We’re also treated to a handy recap of the events from the first movie, which serves to remind us how annoying it was that director Garry Marshall tried to pass off Hathaway as an ugly duckling in the first place. The original might have had more resonance if Mia’s somewhat less stunning friend Lilly (Heather Matarazzo) turned out to be the princess. But then, this is Disney we’re talking about, and resonance has never been tops on their priority list.

The queen throws a big party for Mia at the palace, where she dances with – among others – the handsome and mysterious Nicholas (Chris Pine). Impending coronation, a castle of her very own, and a hot mystery man…not bad for a 21-year-old. Everything looks to be in place for Mia’s ascension to the throne, followed by years of wise and benevolent rule

But wait! It appears there’s a little known Genovian law stating that no woman can assume the throne unless she is married. Queen Clarisse is understandably vexed, and had I been in her shoes I would’ve had several of my advisors beheaded for not unearthing this inconvenient loophole. Instead, she entreats Parliament to reconsider, reminding them that “this is the 21st century.” Parliament, led by the evil (he has a beard) Viscount Mabrey, refuses, and gives Mia 30 days to find a husband or make way for the Viscount’s nephew, the handsome and mysterious Lord Devereaux.

(Curiously, Parliament doesn’t bring up the nagging question of – this being the 21st century – why the hell are they still dealing with royalty in the first place?)

Soon, the hunt is on for a suitable mate. Mia settles on Andrew, a bland Duke from England, and a wedding date is set. The evil Viscount (John Rhys-Davies), in a brilliant gambit, encourages his nephew to woo the princess in the hopes of stopping the marriage and clearing the way for him to become king. The nephew in question turns out to be Nicholas from the party (who saw that coming?), and he agrees, though he seems a bit reluctant about the plan.

The Viscount, wisely as it turns out, suspects his nephew’s heart may not be in the scheme, so he arranges a series of G-rated mishaps to befall the princess and make her appear unfit to rule. This being Disney, he never plants a dead rent-boy in Mia’s boudoir, or arranges for a servant to “discover” used syringes in her purse. That would’ve afforded a little more intrigue, to my mind, but I suspect I’m not the studio’s target audience.

In that same vein, most self-respecting royals like Queen Clarisse would have this annoying Viscount killed. What’s the point of being queen if you can’t indulge in a little judicious homicide? It isn’t as if security chief Joe (Hector Elizondo) wouldn’t happily commit cold-blooded murder for his long unrequited love interest. With such a lack of backbone, it’s no wonder the monarchy is in disarray.

But in retrospect, such tactics would never go over in a place like Genovia, where all the servants love their masters with the fervor of AKC-registered lapdogs, and no one ever writes a tell-all exposé about the Crown Prince banging the staff. Genovia is Disney World’s Fantasyland brought to life: the sun always shines, its (predominantly white) citizens are well-fed, and the only apparent domestic issue appears to be the preponderance of orphans. And orphans, as we all know, make for the best photo ops.

“The Princess Diaries 2” manages to stretch a 30-minute sitcom’s worth of plot to almost two hours, filling the gaps with endless flirting between Mia and the oddly concave-chested Nicholas and aggravating set pieces. There’s also a bridal shower in which guest princesses from across the globe engage in such un-princesslike activities as riding mattresses down the stairs in their pajamas (for such an allegedly family-oriented film, Disney sure seems to be going out of the way to court the dirty old man market).

If there is one high point to be found, it’s that Julie Andrews sings for the first time since her 1997 throat surgery. Unfortunately, the performance in question is a duet with the spectacularly annoying Raven, with whom fingernails on a chalkboard compare favorably. Andrews still looks great, however, and commands most of the scenes she’s in. Hathaway is pretty, a decent actress, and complements Andrews well, but there’s not much new here. The only other cast member who stands out is Matarazzo and, given her recent résumé, she was probably contractually obligated to appear.

I admit, I’m more or less hardwired to dislike this movie, but even by Garry Marshall’s abysmally low standards, there isn’t much to recommend “The Princess Diaries 2.” Parents will be forced to explain to their kids, once again, they don’t have any connections to a mysterious royal family and to eat their Mac ‘n Cheese like they’ve been told. Meanwhile, anyone over the age of 12 will probably find themselves wishing for a new Reign of Terror to spice things up a bit.

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