Little girls may be made of equal parts sugar and spice, but the movies targeted at them typically tip toward the saccharine end. Indeed, The Princess Diaries 2: A Royal Engagement strips most of the spice out of the original's already quite high sugar content. But it still manages, within its modest ambitions, to entertain.
In this installment, Princess Mia (Anne Hathaway) has just graduated from college and returned to her adopted homeland of Genovia to take over the crown from her aging grandmother, Queen Clarisse (the enduringly endearing Julie Andrews). But Mia's royal aspirations quickly hit two roadblocks. First, an archaic decree that no unmarried woman may ascend the throne, and second, another contender for the crown jewels, a smooth operator named Lord Nicholas (Chris Pine), who is egged on by a Machiavellian uncle (John Rhys-Davies). Because Mia is so selfless, so pure-hearted, so devoted to Genovia, she agrees to an arranged marriage to ensure her succession. The bulk of the film takes place during the month-long anticipation of her nuptials.
Although it's a stretch to say the film's predecessor was realistic -- geeky California girl finds out she's really a princess of an obscure Western European country! -- it did have, within its fairy-tale trappings, a measure of contemporary resonance. Mia grappled with both finding herself, as all teenagers must, and being true to that self in the face of all this royal hoohah. Here, the darn thing's gone off the deep end, what with Mia's arranged marriage and priority tasks like figuring out how to operate the remote control to her closet. (And it's hard not to smart a little at Mia -- once the artistically minded antithesis of a clotheshorse -- marveling at her expansive closet, "I have my own mall!")
The Genovia setting is a marvelous studio-lot construct -- a multi-culti land in which American, British, Scottish and French accents freely mix, its landscape dotted with farmers on cellphones and streets that are lined with prefab picturesque buildings and scampering orphans. A Royal Engagement, in short, is pure contrivance, and at two hours, way too long for its target audience of squirming tykes. And yet, those two hours pass painlessly enough, thanks to the affability of its trio of leads, Hathaway, Andrews and Hector Elizondo as the head of palace security. All three are class personified -- a bit incongruous in such a cornball production -- and even if little girls won't find an ounce of originality, ingenuity or spice in this middling genre outing, they will find in Hathaway's spunky mix of regal poise and girl-next-door klutzdom a worthy role model.