Judge Erich Asperschlager is a pretty, pretty princess.
"I don't fit in here at all. I'm like a burp in a symphony."
For more than 50 years, Barbie has helped little girls learn that they'll never be as pretty or have as many accessories as their favorite doll. Back in 1959, Barbie's impossibly thin figure and improbably large wardrobe fit society's ideas of what girls should aspire to. Although those outdated ideas have been cast aside in favor of gender equality, you wouldn't know it by looking at Barbie. Her mink stoles have been traded for cell phones, but the message and the waistline are still the same. For evidence that Barbie is out of touch with the modern world, look no further than her latest straight-to-DVD adventure: Barbie: Princess Charm School.
Welcome to Gardania, a land divided into Royals and Commoners, where young girls dream of going to Princess Charm School, an exclusive university for Princesses and their advisers, called Lady Royals. When a commoner waitress named Blair Willow wins the yearly Lottery to attend the school, she finds herself in over her head among the glamorous elite. Despite making friends with her roommates, Blair crosses paths with Princess Delancy and her mother, the devious Dame Devin—who suspects that Blair might be a threat to her daughter's ascension to the throne.
Princess Charm School fits in with any number of "new kid in school" movies—everything from The Karate Kid to Mean Girls to the Harry Potter series. It hits all the story beats, has all the expected character types, and ends up the way you'd expect. It's not great storytelling. Blair goes from Minimum Wage Barbie to Princess Barbie too quickly, there's never much at stake, and the ending hinges on an unbelievable change of heart from one of the nastier characters. Still, plenty of kids' movies are just as lazy and predictable. If you grew up with Barbie, and want to share her glittery world with your daughter, then you probably don't care what a grumpy old DVD reviewer thinks of Princess Charm School.
For everyone else, I urge you to keep your kids far, far away from this movie. It may look like harmless animated fare, but there's something scary about a kids' franchise celebrating conformity and materialism. In a year when Britain threw a lavish royal wedding in the middle of a global economic crisis, it's hard to believe anyone who makes movies for children could be this out of touch. In fact, the only way I could see this story working in the modern world is if the bubblegum pink setting and pro-Princess message were set in a dystopian alternate reality. (You how no idea how badly I want to see Shirley Jackson's version of Princess Charm School.) The social disconnect might be lost on the young, but that doesn't excuse Mattel. Like any number of spoiled brat reality shows on MTV, these Barbie movies are based in a skewed version of reality—a world where all that matters is clothes, makeup, and "accessories." Call it escapist fantasy if you want, but there's nothing fictional about the cash rolling in.
With a calculated cross-promotional campaign that would make George Lucas blush, Mattel has not only created dolls and accessories to match the CGI characters from Princess Charm School, but trademarked the heck out of it all. From the back of the case, to the enclosed toy ad, to the DVD menu, there are more TMs, SMs, and Rs than a Scrabble tile rack. Sorry, I mean a SCRABBLE® tile rack. I get why Barbie needs a ™, but they trademarked the names "Blair," "Hadley," "Delancy," and "Nicholas"—Nicholas. Not only did they create a token love interest for Barbie, giving him just enough screentime to justify his addition to the toy line, but they trademarked a common boy's name. If you'll excuse me, I need to go hug my daughter.
If you can get past the insidious commercialism, Princess Charm School is a competent movie, with higher than average production values for the straight-to-DVD market. The animation is smooth, and the 1.78:1 widescreen image colorful, with solid detail for a standard def release. The 5.1 surround audio mix is clean, with plenty of pep. The extras are limited to a minute and a half of fake unfunny "outtakes"; a music video for "You Can Tell She's a Princess;" and a new short called "A Camping We Will Go," in which Barbie and her sisters go camping in a tricked out RV and we're supposed to feel bad that they have to cook S'mores in a microwave while huddled around a widescreen TV.
At 81 minutes, Princess Charm School is shorter than the feature film it's pretending to be, and longer than the toy commercial it actually is. Don't be fooled by the vague tagline "There's a Princess in Every Girl." This movie might want you to think it's interested in empowering young girls, but nothing can hide the fact that Barbie hasn't evolved since the 1960s, or that Mattel is only interested in selling toys to impressionable tots.
A royal pain. Guilty!
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