We’ve come a long way in terms of fairy tales centered on a handsome prince from a far-off land rescuing a beautiful, distressed damsel from a life of destitution. It’s widely welcomed that women can rescue themselves and concurrently complement the male arc. With Netflix delivering progressive modernizations of these fantasies in their stable of holiday-themed titles, they’ve ever-so-slightly refashioned the traditional model of empty-calorie cinematic confections. Yet their off-season offerings have been scarce — until now, with Rick Jacobson’s “The Royal Treatment,” which takes expected genre trappings and infuses them with unexpected delights, creating an enlightened, enchanting and entertaining feature.
Indomitable beauty salon owner Izzy (Laura Marano) has never met a head of hair or a troubled soul she hasn’t been able to touch. A fixture in her Bronx neighborhood, delivering donuts and smiles in equal measure to friends and family, her Italian heart of gold keeps her world turning. Still, despite running a business she takes pride in with her overbearing mother (Amanda Billing), grandmother (Elizabeth Hawthorne) and besties Destiny (Chelsie Preston Crayford) and Lola (Grace Bentley-Tsibuah), she’s been wrestling with a pressure-filled offer to run the local community center — a treasured place that will cease to exist if she doesn’t take the job.
Around this same time, Thomas (Mena Massoud), the prince of Lavania (a fictionalized multicultural melting-pot kingdom that holds its own against Aldovia from “A Christmas Prince” and Genovia from “The Princess Diaries”), is visiting New York City for his engagement party. He too is struggling with a major life decision: whether to go through with an arranged marriage to hotel heiress Lauren (Phoenix Connolly) to appease his parents. Through a sitcom-style circumstance, he finds himself in Izzy’s care for a much-needed haircut, and soon she and her pals find themselves in his, whisked away to his country to style everyone’s hair for the wedding of the century. Naturally, sparks innocently begin to fly and the pair’s destinies become further entangled.
What serves to royally impress are the sharp ways Jacobson and screenwriter Holly Hester craft clean-lined and cohesive character dilemmas. Internal and external stakes are clearly defined and motivated. The weight of their conflicts is tangible and leaves a lasting impact. Rather than keeping the glossy, light-hearted shenanigans superficial or hollow, the filmmakers give the material depth, naturally incorporating commentary on injustice and gentrification. Stirring sentiments on Gandhi’s principle of being the change you want to see in the world are woven into the film’s fabric with care. It’s also commendable that female characters like Izzy and the bride-to-be aren’t catty or combative toward one another. They get along and actually complement each other. Plus, since this is a twist on rags-to-riches stories, Jacobson handles homage with a deft touch. “Pretty Woman” feels like a distant tonal influence, but also provides inspiration for the finale’s fire-escape setting (which utilizes a pop number sung by lead Marano).
That said, the script offers little to no subtext. We’re far ahead of the protagonists, not only before they go through character-building situations, but also when they state the obvious about their conundrums. Perhaps the spoon-feeding is done at the behest of pre-tween audiences swooning along with the adults in the room. However, there’s no reason to undermine their comprehensive abilities. Izzy’s scummy assistant slumlord Doug (Jay Simon), who’s announced in his two scenes by a pronounced “Seinfeld”-ian musical stinger, comes across as out of place and too broad. Sonia Gray, who plays Thomas’ heavily-French-accented assistant Madame Fabre, is underdeveloped and dealt short shrift. All this is forgivable, of course, just not as forgettable.
Nevertheless, performances make up for any blights in the material. This is clearly Marano’s vehicle and she steers it magnificently, fueling her work with effortless magnetism and charisma. Massoud is equally endearing, instilling his performance with multi-faceted dimension. His slightly foppish, stammering charm sparkles during vulnerable, character-driven moments. Though the romance is chaste and sustains a wholesome veneer, the dynamic duo have an undeniable heat and good chemistry. Crayford and Bentley-Tsibuah are gifted performers, handling the material’s broadly comedic strokes and funny quips with gleeful aplomb. And, practically stealing the show, Cameron Rhodes delivers a tender turn as Thomas’ kind-hearted butler and confidante.
The picture’s resolution leads exactly where audiences predict, given the genre and its standardized tropes and mile-markers. However, it serves to show that it’s more about the journey taken than the destination itself. The message this sends and occasionally transcends is that happy endings aren’t just reserved for fantasies. They can be incorporated into reality for everyone’s betterment — especially those seeking a satisfying distraction.
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