August 13, 2001 12:00 PM

Anne Hathaway, Julie Andrews, Hector Elizondo, Heather Matarazzo

More than 40 years after she became a Broadway star playing Cockney flower girl Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady, the great Julie Andrews is taking on the Henry Higgins role. Alas, most of the audience for The Princess Diaries is probably too young to get the joke. Diaries, a family film with enough tart touches to balance its saccharine premise, finds Andrews successfully transforming an ungainly American teenager into a royal-highness-in-waiting. When her pupil masters driving a car up and down San Francisco’s steep hills while the two are out for a pleasure ride, Andrews even utters Higgins’s most famous line, telling the girl approvingly, “I think you’ve got it.”

Andrews is Clarisse Renaldi, the queen of Genovia, a small (and make-believe) European monarchy. She arrives in San Francisco to see if her long-lost granddaughter Mia (Hathaway) is tiara-worthy. Discovering she’s heir to the throne horrifies the girl. “Most kids hope for a car for their 16th birthday,” she says, “not a country.” Soon, though, Mia has enrolled in Royalty 101 with her exacting grandma, learning to differentiate between forks and submitting to a major makeover.

Diaries, as directed by Garry Marshall (Runaway Bride), is slow to start and drags at the end, but the middle is lively fun. Andrews makes for a regal but warm queen who’s not above munching on a corn dog. Hathaway displays an endearingly goofy charm and flair for pratfalls. Nine-year-old girls will love every minute, but adult viewers may question its message. If Diaries‘ point is that it’s who you are underneath that matters, why doesn’t Mia—after plucking her brows, shelving her glasses and straightening her frizzy hair—never go back to her natural look? (G)

Bottom Line: Andrews rules

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