Christmas movies have become a booming subgenre on Lifetime, the Disney Channel and now Netflix, so much so that even someone who wraps themselves in tinsel and holly starting at Thanksgiving couldn’t hope to watch them all. Despite the high volume of product, very few of these films enter the canon alongside classics like “Christmas Vacation,” “A Christmas Story” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Netflix’s “The Princess Switch” is the latest entry that does everything to attract Christmas-philes except actually be original or good. A modern-day, fantasy-tinged riff on “The Prince and the Pauper,” the screenplay by Robin Bernheim and Megan Metzger will seem stridently paint-by-numbers even to a viewer unfamiliar with the works of Mark Twain.
Chicago baker Stacy and Montenaro (imagine a tiny principality amid Great Britain) princess Margaret (both played by Vanessa Hudgens) purposely switch places in Belgravia (imagine a second tiny principality amid Great Britain). Stacy is in a cake competition and Margaret is about to get married to Belgravian Prince Edward (Sam Palladio). The expected beats ensue, except that the writers forget to insert humor onto the foundation, so “The Princess Switch” is like a cake without filling or frosting.
That’s a shame because I think Hudgens could’ve killed it. She played the straightwoman in the kinda charming superhero sitcom “Powerless,” and is comfortable with the (far too light) comedic rhythms here. But the closest to an outright funny scene is when Stacy, roped into a horseback riding venture, flips over her mount and then blames her too-tight riding pants. She struts around to loosen them up as Edward looks on, bewildered.
A film packed with fish-out-of-water physical humor like that could’ve worked, but I can’t think of any other close-to-funny moments. “The Princess Switch” doesn’t even deliver the dramatic clincher where the ladies’ switcheroo is found out; they simply pull Edward and Kevin (Nick Sagar) aside and explain it. Hudgens is adorable, but even she can only raise this material to the level of a smile-worthy trifle. Stacy and Margaret are both one-note – the schedule-oriented baker and the adventure-seeking royal – as is everyone else.
Kevin’s situation has potential to be bittersweet: He’s in love with his best friend, and then a woman who looks exactly like her returns his feelings while the best friend is swept away by an almost literal Prince Charming. Kevin’s mind-trip would be interesting to dig into, but it’s not that deep of a film. (Indeed, it’s clear from minute one that it’s not that deep of a film.)
The technical competence is tough to argue with, as director Mike Rohl and the editing team expertly stage the scenes that have both Margaret and Stacy in them, and the film doesn’t skimp on those scenes as much as you’d guess. Maybe split-screen technology is less expensive than it used to be. Belgravia is a snow-sprinkled wonderland, like that Christmas village on your mantel come to life. “The Princess Switch” is a pretty movie, albeit in an utterly expected way.
There’s no good reason for straight-to-Netflix movies to be as lame as straight-to-video movies from the old days. The technical know-how and leading lady are in place for “The Princess Switch” to be a lot of fun, but the script isn’t. Fans of Hudgens and holiday fare deserve better.