We don't have the heart to tell Judge Kerry Birmingham there's already a "King of Burgers" when he looks so darn cute wearing that crown.
Every princess has a story.
Would most little girls want to grow up to be princesses if they knew it would be anything like this? This series of tween-skewing histories, based on a young adult book series published by Scholastic, recasts several famous rulers of the past as young girls not yet come to power. Narrating from their own fictionalized "diaries" (or, in Cleopatra's case, papyrus), these half-hour vignettes imagine these unknowable women of history as uncertain young people navigating their way through the world, facing both the perils of royalty (infighting, political manipulation, the occasional asp in the bed) and the ordinary perils of growing up (sibling rivalry, parental disapproval, awkward romance). Originally airing in 2000, the three episodes collected here follow the travails of some of history's most famous female rulers before they came to rule, each at ages where a life of power was still largely a life of leisure and battlefields couldn't compete with the teenage wasteland-apparently that's a bad age to be no matter what era you live in.
Facts of the Case
Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor follows England's young queen (Tamara Hope) in her adolescent years as she attempts to curry favor with her infamously tempestuous father, Henry VIII, and navigate the perils of courtly politics among her squabbling royal siblings.
In Isabel: Jewel of Castilla, the would-be ruler of Spain (Lisa Jakub, Mrs. Doubtfire) is forced to choose between what she believes to be right and her obligations to her family, whose feud has engulfed the country in civil war. Should she go with an arranged marriage that could salvage the kingdom, or follow her own desires?
Cleopatra VII: Daughter of the Nile finds the legendary Egyptian queen (Elisa Moolecherry)in her early years, fleeing assassins bent on destroying her father and the royal family. Cleopatra escapes with her father to Rome in a last ditch effort to secure aid for her homeland, only to find her father is not the master negotiator she thought he was and her power-hungry siblings have come to power in Egypt in their absence, leaving her and her own wits to save the empire.
This is not the stuff of riveting biography, nor does it aim to be. The Royal Diaries's target audience is about the age of its protagonists, and falls squarely into that camp of youth entertainment that-shh!-wants to educate its audience without their even realizing it. Hence we have an uneasy mix of history and melodrama further constrained by the running time of each episode, and the results aren't as magical as the whimsical princess narratives they seem to want to evoke. For the most part, however, each episode is a competently produced summation of a time and place invoked mainly in dusty tomes, and certainly never aimed at young girls.
The order of the day in The Royal Diaries is relatability, history be damned, and it's a refreshing move that puts history second. Do we put Cleopatra's political machinations to the forefront, or her fear for her family? Isabel's convoluted political situation or her desire to marry the right boy? It's reductionist and oversimplified, but a little bit of teen angst makes the history go down: your kids are watching Elizabeth bicker with her sister, Mary, sure, but they're also learning about the English line of succession, Catholic persecution, and exactly how big of a jerk Henry VIII was. Production values are high and the acting is uniformly excellent, particularly Hope's Elizabeth, feisty and shrewd. It's history and life lessons in one concise package, and The Royal Diaries can be forgiven if it favors its "girl power" message over matters of historical import (such as Queen Isabel, who, as a voiceover mentions over a still frame of the smiling queen, later instituted the Spanish Inquisition. Whoops!). The histories here depicted gloss over details, but much of the time those details are beside the point. These are mildly diverting educational tools, and in the quest to get information and a little inspiration, to its target audience, it's okay to only briefly acknowledge the fact that the whole of civilization is pretty damn crazy no matter what age you're living in. Those who do not learn from teenage girls in possession of power are doomed to repeat it.
Picture and sound are nominal throughout. There are no special features to speak of, nor anything as rudimentary as chapter selection or subtitles (which would have come in handy with the many foreign names being bandied about).
History buffs should just move along, in case my use of the words "tweens," "educational," and "girl power" didn't tip you off that this is not one for the History Channel crowd. Parents looking to expand their children's horizons, particularly young girls, could do worse than these stories, which make political intrigue and violent reprisals seem like more of a bummer than the grave matters adults know them to be.
Not guilty, and no one's to be beheaded, tortured, or otherwise assassinated to figure that out.
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