Lionsgate // 2009 // 98 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // September 29th, 2010
Her heart was torn between love and Hawai'i's destiny.
Theoretically, there's a lot of promise in the story of Princess Ka'iulani, the last crown princess of sovereign Hawai'i. Strong, beautiful and popular, she fought against the worst kind of American imperialism, and she almost succeeded. At least she came a lot closer to success than writer/director Marc Forby did in bringing her tale to the screen. By making Princess Ka'iulani as close to a certain Terence Malick film as possible, he undermines an interesting and rarely told piece of history while, as a first time filmmaker, he sets a cinematic standard that he cannot reach.
As the niece of the King of Hawai'i, Ka'iulani (Q'orianka Kilcher, The New World) has grown up in royal luxury, but a new day has dawned on the islands. American mercantile interests have caused a new regime to start taking over the government and, when things get heavy, Ka'iulani is spirited off to England for her education. There, she finds a world she never knew and a man she wants to spend her life with, but when she is called to help reclaim the throne, she must choose between love and country.
Princess Ka'iulani is an interesting story, but a lazy film. It feels too much like The New World to avoid connection, but it does not compare favorably. More than simply the presence of Q'orianka Kilcher, the character types are almost identical: native royalty transposed to England, white usurpers looking to steal the natives' way of life, and a romantic interest who loves the main character, but can't help seeing her culture as barbaric. Forby tries hard to capture the meditative natural state that gave life to Malick's film while making the case that the land's inhabitants are more civilized than the interloper society. In the special features, both Forby and Kilcher express how strongly they feel about the subject matter, and I believe them. However, it takes more than conviction to make a good movie, and Princess Ka'iulani is not a good movie.
For all of the issues presented about imperialism, the preservation of nature, and revolution, Princess Ka'iulani is a surprisingly boring film. Part is the writing, part is the filmmaking, but the performances are really where the film fails. Terrence Malick used Q'orianka Kilcher perfectly, letting the expressiveness of her face deliver the emotional struggle of Pocahontas. Forby, on the other hand, gives the actress a large amount of dialog, and she just can't handle it. Where Ka'iulani was a strong and assertive woman, Kilcher just seems meek. When she stands in front of the American press to appeal her case of sovereignty, she speaks softly and, unable to hear her, the reporters start mocking her. In frustration, she starts speaking more loudly and forcefully, at least in theory. The reality is that Kilcher performs these lines exactly as she did the previous ones, leaving us to assume she's speaking louder because the reporters are suddenly listening intently to her. While nobody in the cast is egregiously awful, the film is filled with lifeless performances that in no way help the script, which has its own problems with pacing and interest.
The DVD from Lionsgate is below average on a technical level, but it features some interesting supplements that help sell the package. The anamorphic widescreen image looks muddled. It's a colorful film, but the hues and black levels are often murky. There are some artifacts and blocking throughout the picture; there should have been considerably more attention to detail in this transfer. The 5.1 surround mix fares a little better, but it could have been much better itself. The dialog is clear enough, but there is very little happening in the surround channel, which seems lazy given how much of the film occurs in a place with wonderful ambient sound; you can barely tell it's in surround. Making the package a little better is the special features, starting with a commentary from Forby. He doesn't spend a lot of time praising himself, which is appreciated, but gives some backstory and points out a few details I missed. It isn't a great commentary, but it's fairly interesting. The best feature is a half-hour documentary called "Ka'iulani: The Crown Princess of Hawai'i." It's a basic look at the real story of the princess and can be kind of fluffy, but the Princess Ka'iulani story is not well-known, so a broad introduction is welcome. A behind-the-scenes featurette delivers more self-praise than the commentary and isn't worth a whole lot. A trailer rounds us out.
In nearly every way, Princess Ka'iulani is a lame, forgettable movie, but like the Hammer horror films and their beautiful gothic castles, the film sees success in the production values. It is the first production to ever be filmed inside of Iolani Palace and it looks incredible. It's amazing how filming in the actual location dramatically adds to the realism, obvious as that may sound. In no way does it save the film, but it is a gorgeous place and, for those moments alone, the film is a pleasure to watch.
There's a lot of merit in the story, but Princess Ka'iulani fails as a movie. Poor performances and cheap filmmaking take all the spirit out of the great princess, and you can safely skip this epic.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG