Producers: Neal H. Moritz, Toby Jaffe and Derek Kolstad Director: Le-Van Kiet Screenplay: Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton Cast: Joey King, Dominic Cooper, Olga Kurylenko, Veronica Ngo, Ed Stoppard. Alex Reid, Allegra du Troit, Katelyn Rose Downey, Kristofer Kamiyasu, Antoni Davidov, Fergus O’Donnell and Todor Kirilov Distributor: Hulu
A nasty bit of business masquerading as a female empowerment fantasy, Le-Van Kiet’s movie completely subverts the Disney conception of a princess that little girls have grown up with for a century or so. That’s not entirely a bad thing, except that it does so simply by using a different, more modern stereotype—that of the ass-kicking warrior princess who refuses to be treated as inferior just because of her gender. That, plus its repetitive violence and a lack of humor that isn’t of the most juvenile sort, leaves “The Princess” as tedious and unpleasant a medieval fightfest as it would be if its protagonist were male.
The movie opens with the heroine (Joey King), dressed in a beautiful bridal gown, awakening in a room atop the tower of her father’s castle, chains on her hands and two brutal guards leering at her. She’s small but hardly demure, and soon takes on her captors in hand-to-hand combat, parrying their attacks and meting out plenty of punishment in return. After a long back-and-forth she’s dispatched them both.
That’s only the beginning. She must fight her way down the tower’s entire height, meeting opposition at every stage, sometimes a single fearsome foe but often a whole band of mercenaries. Flashbacks are intermittently inserted to provide background. Some show her training in martial arts as a young girl (Allegra du Troit); her teacher Linh (Veronica Ngo) and Linh’s uncle Khai (Kristofer Kamiyasu) saw special talent in her, and now her success in vanquishing every sort of opponent, however big and strong, proves they were right. Still, she occasionally needs help, and luckily both Linh and Khai are on hand to provide a hand when things seem especially bleak.
Flashbacks are also introduced to explain the peril in which the princess now finds herself. Responding to the unhappy fact that he had no son to be his heir, her father (Ed Stoppard) and mother (Alex Reid) betrothed her to Julius (Dominic Cooper), a forceful nobleman who could rule the realm as her husband. But when the princess refused to go through with the ceremony, Julius stormed the castle and took her parents and younger sister Violet (Katelyn Rose Downey) prisoner, threatening to kill them unless she submitted to his demands. His closest aide, whip-wielding, stone-cold Moira (Olga Kurylenko) suggested that he merely eliminate the family and seize the throne, but he insists that he needs a connection to the royal family to make his rule secure.
So the princess’ fight goes on interminably until she finally reaches the ground, where she will have to face off first against the formidable Moira and then Julius himself. Along the way she fights with whatever instruments come to hand—knives, swords, kitchen utensils—but mostly with kicks and fists. She’s repeatedly on the verge of defeat—the number of times a burly opponent grabs her by the throat and lifts her in the air for the coup de grace is ridiculous—but always manages not merely to escape but to win. And the modes in which she finally disposes of foes runs the gamut. It’s usually a matter of stabbing, but immolation, hanging and even decapitation have their place.
Of course, sometimes innovation is required, like snapping a string of pearls so that a bunch of soldiers will slip and fall trying to walk over them. That’s the sort of thing that passes for humor here, although there is one running gag—about a tubby soldier (Todor Kirilov) ordered to go check on the princess in her room, gasping desperately at every stage of his climb up the long flight of stairs. It’s a bit of business that would have seemed old hat in a Three Stooges short.
King exhibits the pluck and energy needed for all the action, but she’s not the most expressive actress, and her single look of grim determination becomes rather a bore. It’s fun, though, to watch her gown get more and more tattered as she descends the tower—a rare glimmer of amusing detail, courtesy of costumer Verity Hawkes, whose designs elsewhere are no more than workmanlike. Certainly the dress exhibits more variety than Cooper, whose strident, snarling, one-note turn as Julius, as he seethes over the king’s weakness and screams his intent to return strong rule to the realm, is more cartoonish than a villain in an animated Disney movie. Of the rest Ngo registers the requisite dignity and athletic prowess as Linh and Kurylenko is all simmering malevolence as Moira, while Stoppard is convincingly dumb as the king who finally realizes that he already has an absolutely perfect heir, so long as he’s willing to toss out his prejudice against a daughter as his successor.
Director Le-Van Kiet and his action coordinators choreograph the fight sequences decently enough, but they do go on and grow tiresomely redundant, a flaw editor Alex Fenn can’t overcome even by trimming the running-time to an hour and a half; nor does Natalie Holt’s vigorous score manage to raise the excitement level much. With the picture set exclusively in the family castle, and mostly in the tower, there’s not much call for imagination in the visual department, and neither Marc Holmes’ grim production design nor Lorenzo Senatore’s dank cinematography shows much of it. The picture, by the way, was shot in Bulgaria.
In her childhood training, the princess is constantly reminded by Linh that the keys to success are focus and patience. Kiet’s movie has plenty of the former—it’s single-minded to a fault. But the patience has to be provided by the viewers, and it’s too much to ask of them. There are plenty of other self-confident, capable cinematic princesses out there, and most of them are far more enjoyable than this one.