The Princess Diaries

Julie Andrews is one of the classiest, most well-loved actresses in the world. She doesn’t do very many movies anymore, which prevents audiences from growing tired of her, and which puts her on a higher pedestal than actors who show up three or four times a year in some movie or other.

It also means that when she appears in something dreadful, like “The Princess Diaries,” she can do it without getting the stink of the movie on her. The film may be badly written and lazily directed, but she’s still Julie Andrews. It may be dimly acted, but not by her. Julie Andrews exists separately and distinctly from anything bad she may appear in. We will even give her the courtesy of not asking why in the name of all things holy she agreed to appear in THIS movie, of all things.

“The Princess Diaries” is about a 15-year-old girl named Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) who is klutzy and nerdy and timid, though surely she will overcome these things once she has a makeover, takes off her glasses and puts on a pretty dress. (And, of course, once she looks good, she will also become a worthwhile human being. We are familiar with this type of story, no?)

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Mia lives with her mom (Caroline Goodall) in San Francisco and attends a snooty private school where her only friend is the almost equally nerdy Lilly (Heather Matarazzo). Then she learns that her dead father was the son of the queen of Genovia, which means she, Mia, is a princess — and heir to the throne.

She learns this from the queen herself, played by Julie Andrews. Queen Clarisse wants to prepare Mia for royalty, but boy, does she ever have her work cut out for her! Why, Mia is as clumsy as the day is long!

The movie plays like the pilot for an ABC Friday-night sitcom, even resorting to the standard “two dates to the prom” plot device. (It’s three dates, and it’s not the prom, but it’s the same principle.) There is nothing clever, sly or particularly witty about it.

It is also very badly paced: It lasts nearly two hours, which is extraordinarily long for a G-rated kid flick. Director Garry Marshall (responsible for the awful “Dear God” and “The Other Sister” — plus the pretty-good “Pretty Woman” and “Runaway Bride”) has lost any sense of comic timing he might have had. And the script, by Gina Wendkos (“Coyote Ugly”), has no rising action, no major crisis, no climax. Just a long series of stuff, and then an ending.

It goes without saying that Ms. Andrews is wonderful. Hector Elizondo is funnier than his surroundings as the queen’s soft-spoken, deadpan assistant. And Robert Schwartman shows promise as Michael, Lilly’s brother who secretly pines for Mia.

And Mia herself? Anne Hathaway is certainly trying, but she’s not up to the challenge of carrying a physical comedy all on her own. She is also hobbled by playing a character who is written to be one-dimensional. She should be the wacky best friend; instead, she’s the romantic lead.

It is possible kids will find the film amusing, though I question whether they’ll be entertained enough to sit still for 115 minutes. If they can handle a movie that long, though, go ahead — go ahead and put in a tape of “Mary Poppins,” that is, and show them the Julie Andrews they need to know. Let’s just forget she was ever involved in something so pedestrian, uninspired and forgettable.

C- (; G, with nothing offensive.)