This movie wasn’t particularly good last year, when it was called “The Princess Diaries,” and it’s even worse the second time around. To be fair, the credits announce that “What a Girl Wants” was actually inspired by William Douglas Home’s “The Reluctant Debutante,” about an aristocratic British couple struggling to introduce their American-educated daughter to London society. (The play was filmed by Vincente Minnelli in 1958 with Rex Harrison, Kay Kendall and Sandra Dee.) But the reworking by Jenny Bicks and Elizabeth Chandler transforms it into a near copy of the recent Disney flick. Amanda Bynes plays Daphne Reynolds, a typical U.S. teen raised happily by her free-spirited single mom, a singer named Libby (Kelly Preston); but she’s always wanted to meet her absent father, an English nobleman with whom Libby had a brief romance before being persuaded to leave him to protect his political prospects. Now 17, Daphne impulsively decides to travel to England to meet her dad, Lord Henry Dashwood (Colin Firth), a popular fellow who’s just resigned his ancestral position in the House of Lords to run for a seat in the Commons and become prime minister. Dashwood’s also at the point of marrying Glynnis Paine (Anna Chancellor), the daughter of his manipulative campaign advisor Alistair (Jonathan Pryce), and thereby also acquire a step-daughter, Clarissa (Christina Cole). Needless to say, the abrupt arrival of the ebullient Daphne, of whose existence Dashwood was completely unaware, throws everything into an uproar. The wicked trio of Alistair, Glynnis and Clarissa try to embarrass her and drive her away as quickly as possible, but Henry himself is far more welcoming, and over time he unbuttons in response to her sweetness and exuberance. Happily Daphne also has some allies: Dashwood’s mum Jocelyn (Eileen Atkins), the sort of totally eccentric old dowager who’s de rigueur in American movies about England, and Ian (Oliver James), a musician with whom she gets romantically involved. (The good-natured young man also happens to be a the son of a couple who abandoned the aristocratic life in favor of true love. Isn’t that just wonderfully symmetrical?) The trajectory of the plot is entirely preordained. There’s more than a touch of “Sleeping Beauty” in Henry’s inevitable rediscovery of his feelings for Libby and the defeat of the three villains who try to keep them and their true daughter apart, and of “Cinderella” in Daphne’s acceptance into high society and her linkup with a virtual Prince Charming. The result is a wish-fulfillment fairytale that seems aimed exclusively at twelve-year old girls.
Bynes works hard, but the need for her to mug incessantly and hold the center stage by flouncing about in poses of exaggerated joy makes her charm less apparent than it was in “Big Fat Liar.” The laid-back James, however, makes a likable partner for her. Unfortunately, no one else in the cast fares as well. Firth has to act so flustered and uncool that he looks as though he were suffering from a perpetual case of colitis, and Pryce merely does his all-too-familiar pursed-lipped villain routine; Chancellor and Cole are similarly misused, though Atkins manages the well-meaning dottiness well enough. The house of Windsor is mistreated throughout, impersonated by a parade of stilted stand-ins who embarrass the real royals even more than their own actions have done. England itself, on the other hand, looks great: the locations have been well chosen, and they’re nicely shot by Andrew Dunn. The fact that rain never ruins things, of course, is more than a trifle unrealistic; but then this is a fantasy.
“What a Girl Wants” might pass muster as a Sunday night Disney movie, but on the big screen the Gaylord Films production, like their earlier “A Walk to Remember,” seems out of its element, a flick designed for a spot on the video shelf in every teenage girl’s bedroom that’s wandered into the multiplex by mistake. If you should find yourself trapped in a theatre with it, just take to heart a line that the scowling Pryce addresses to Chancellor at one point. “Relax,” he says. “She’ll be gone before long.”