Entertainment

A Review Of Joey King’s The Princess


(from left): Joey King and Veronica Ngo in The Princess.

(from left): Joey King and Veronica Ngo in The Princess.
Photo: 20th Century Studios

A yawningly simplistic and roundly inconsequential action movie, The Princess lacks, on a narrative level, the certitude and clarity of purpose of its title character. Devoid of any attendant sense of even manufactured adventure, the result is something that is neither fish nor fowl—too generic for most genre fans, and too violent for preadolescents seeking some modicum of rah-rah uplift in this story of a young woman protecting her kingdom at the blade of a sword.

Directed by Le-Van Kiet, the film opens with an imprisoned, handcuffed princess (Joey King) defeating some henchmen sent to fetch her. The evil Julius (Dominic Cooper, trading in empty sneering), assisted by Moira (Olga Kurylenko), has kidnapped her parents, the King (Ed Stoppard) and Queen (Alex Reid), as well as her 11-year-old sister Violet (Katelyn Rose Downey), in an effort to force the princess to acquiesce to marriage, thereby consolidating his takeover of power.

Flashbacks show the princess leaving Julius humiliated at the altar, and also training with Linh (Veronica Ngô), an ally and friend of her parents. After she escapes and initially hides, the princess fights a lot of marauding mercenaries, even teaming up with Linh for a moment. In its third act, the movie feints a pivot in which Julius hatches an alternate plan to just wed Violet, but quickly discards the darker implications of this twist for a return to more conventional plotting.

There are signs early on that The Princess, written by Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton, lacks some of the resources to bring their grand vision to life. In one shot, as a group of men labor to drop an ostensibly heavy wooden beam that would effectively seal a gate, the accompanying sound effect comes across as a knock on a hollow table. Several scenes later comes a moment which may represent the worst CGI fire ever put on screen. In between, and after, are sequences in which gathering attackers yell or growl nonsensically, as if the movie has exhausted its allowance of stunt performer dialogue.

None of these bits, it should be stressed, are enough, individually or in aggregate, to raise the movie to the status of “interestingly bad.” Rather, they are simply indicators of daily shortfalls, cut corners, and compromises which render the film unsuccessful.

Zooming out from the production itself, it’s somewhat difficult to understand The Princess’ history as a spec script sale, especially since its single most distinguishing characteristic is a total lack of distinguishing characteristics. The tale of a princess called or pushed to action in defense of her younger sister might be interesting, and even carry with it some additionally heightened emotional punching power in a post-Roe world. But the screenplay’s treatment of that aspect is perfunctory; its subject is a headstrong, capable and independent young woman who merely happens to have a younger sibling. There’s no nuance or depth to the relationship between Violet and her sister.

Meanwhile, if Moira initially seems to fall in line with the tradition of witchy, king-whispering second-in-commands secretly pining for or accruing power for themselves, the movie abandons even that trope, instead rendering the character merely a physical enforcer with a slightly more notable weapon of choice (a barbed whip). Even a moment of heavy-handed political messaging in its first 10 minutes (“You have welcomed outsiders—you should have conquered them!,” Julius scolds the King, as the camera cuts away to a small group of pitiable, differently colored refugees) falls away, so allergic is The Princess to any type of specificity.

This leaves viewers with… just a lot of action. Like, lots of action—all of it very familiar, and most of it staged with little imagination. To dwell too much on its largely unmotivated nature could risk coming off as a genre-hater. But it’s worth pointing out that there isn’t really much story here, other than to go “get” the princess—who, again, has already been detained. Does the wedding need to actually take place within a certain time period, or be witnessed by specific parties? Who precisely is mollified by a forced marriage? A viewer never really knows.

The princess, understandably, loathes Julius. But her opposition isn’t rooted in arguments about love or attraction, but women being able to serve as royal heir. Still, what does a “win” look like for the princess, and what is the plan to achieve that, apart from simply killing hundreds of people seeking to help enforce Julius’ wedding wish?

To be clear, if it’s just the latter, that’s fine too. But The Princess never really articulates that seat-of-the-pants survival. It is a series of scenes in search of a story. And in the absence of a more restrictive and rigorously defined setting, which could have hypothetically borrowed part of the appeal of something like The Raid (or at least given the movie a structurally sturdy, video game board-clearing feeling), The Princess basically just serves up a never-ending assembly line of goons who are bad at their job. At one point the princess gets captured, but then escapes, so that the vaguely defined mayhem recommences.

King, who first gained recognition as a child actor in 2010’s Ramona and Beezus, and then proved herself a capable young performer in 2019’s The Act, struggles here to deliver a fully dimensional character. She’s not done many favors with the material, true. But she neither communicates steely, sophisticated resolve, nor credibly delivers as an action heroine. The movie instead relies on editing and manipulated frames-per-second sleight-of-hand (never quite slow-motion, never quite hyperkinetic) to sell its physical confrontations.

Overall, The Princess is forgettable—just another number in a library of entertainment assets, the type of thing executives refer to as content or programming on shareholder calls. There is no glory for anyone involved here, nor any enjoyable, diversionary escape for a viewer.



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