I recently (read: two months ago when I wrote the first half of this post) rewatched The Princess Diaries and The Princess Diaries 2, two movies from my childhood that I hadn’t seen in a long time. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the first movie is actually pretty good, and unpleasantly surprised to find that the second one is really bad.
The first Princess Diaries movie has a really strong premise: Mia, an awkward, unpopular 15-year-old girl, finds out she’s actually the princess of a kingdom in Europe named Genovia and has to contend with the changes this brings to her daily highschool life.
The only thing I really remembered about this movie going into it was that it involved a makeover and the protagonist learning how to be more “princess-like.” Given that, I was expecting some questionable messages about femininity and how girls “should” be, but while that subtext was there at the bottom, I was pleased by how the movie sidesteps those themes by specifically grounding the story on this one character. It’s true that because Mia is now in line to rule a country that she has to act with a certain amount of decorum and meet a certain level of conventional attractiveness, but this is never presented as a universal standard of being that everyone else should aspire to. Lilly, Mia’s best friend, demonstrates this by starting in a similar social standing to Mia and staying there over the course of the movie, and this isn’t portrayed as a bad thing–it just is.
Meanwhile, amidst the silly humor (which works pretty well, actually) and larger-than-life plot, the movie is grounded by solid character work for its primary cast. Mia’s journey especially is extremely compelling, as she learns to become more comfortable in the public eye and finds that the popular kids, who she sort-of-secretly wanted an in with, aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
In addition to Mia’s arc, there’s some good stuff about how Mia’s fame affects her relationship with Lilly; how Mia’s grandmother Clarisse has to learn to see her granddaughter not just as a potential successor but also, you know, her granddaughter; and I think Mia’s mom sort of has an arc about respecting Mia’s independence but their relationship is mostly strong throughout the film. There’s even a little romantic subplot with Lilly’s brother, Michael, that isn’t groundbreaking or anything but is solidly executed.
With all that the first movie had going for it, I had moderately high expectations for The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, the second Princess Diaries film utterly fails to live up to its predecessor’s level of quality.
The first misstep here is the premise. The first movie sets up the idea that Mia can be an actor for positive, large-scale change as the ruler of a nation, and so the obvious (and good!) narrative for the sequel would be her working to do just that while navigating the complexities of leading a country. Instead, The Princess Diaries 2 opts for a plot in which a political rival seeks to take the throne by invoking an archaic law which states that a queen of Genovia must be married in order to rule. What follows is a shenanigans-y romantic-comedy plot that’s ultimately nothing more than a piece of meaningless fluff.
What’s extra frustrating about this is that the movie does occasionally flirt with substance, but never actually goes the distance. For instance, there’s a sequence where Mia learns of an orphanage that doesn’t have an adequate building and chooses to home it in one of the royal palaces until a better one can be built, angering the Genovian upperclass in the process. That’s exactly the sort of stuff I wanted from the movie–but here it takes up maybe a few minutes of screentime and has no real impact on the plot.
Meanwhile, there’s this really uncomfortable subplot involving Mia’s maids, who are so subservient and eager to please Mia that they get on her nerves. It’s really bizarre to watch Mia, who lives in an opulent palace and possesses the highest office in the country simply by chance of birth, engage in wacky tactics to avoid two girls whose job is to serve her every whim. It comes across as totally tone-deaf to portray the maids in this way, totally ignoring the injustice of their disparate positions from Mia. Like, she could probably sell a single one of the lavish pieces of jewelry given to her by Clarisse and the money would set her maids for life, but she does nothing. Adorable orphans, though, they get absurdly-overkill help!
Probably the worst part of the movie, however, is the resolution to the main plot, where Mia calls a snap vote to abolish the law requiring her to get married. It’s framed as this feminist message but, like, I’m not sure how meaningful a statement “women shouldn’t have to be married to inherit the rule of a monarchy” is in the 21st century. Plus, there’s literally no reason why Mia couldn’t have called for this vote at the very beginning of the movie and made the entire plot moot.
A better movie might have made it so that Mia, an outsider to the country, didn’t have the political clout or trust of the people to abolish a law right off the bat, but by the end of the movie proves herself as a capable leader worthy of respect, but nope–she just arbitrarily decides that actually she’d rather not play by shitty rules and everyone’s like “yeah that checks out.” It’s really disappointing because the first movie managed to be a lighthearted, silly affair that nonetheless had meaningful things to say about its characters, who had actual arcs and solid plots. The Princess Diaries 2 just leans into the silliness with no substance to back it up.
But, hey, apparently they’re trying to get a third Princess Diaries movie off the ground, so maybe whoever’s behind the next one will have the chance to right the mistakes of the first sequel.