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Featured DVD Review: Princess Ka'iulani

September 12th, 2010

Princess Ka'iulani - Buy from Amazon

Princess Ka'iulani is a biopic about Princess Ka'iulani, who is an important historical figure from Hawaii but has been mostly forgotten outside of the islands. The fact that very few people on the mainland have heard of Ka'iulani could explain why the film was never have to really expand during its limited release, although the reviews certainly didn't help.

The Film

Q'Orianka Kilcher stars as Victoria Ka'iulani Kalaninuiahilapalapa Kawekiu i Lunalilo Cleghorn... Yes, I copy and pasted that from the internet; there's no way I was going to type that out. Princess Ka'iulani is a member of the Hawaiian royal family and second in line to the throne after her aunt. The daughter of a Hawaiian princess and a Scottish businessman, she lost her mother when she was just a child. At the age of 13, she and her father went to England, partially to further her education, but also because of unrest in Hawaii, which threatened her safety.

Adapting to life in England is hard, especially since most people there consider her a barbarian or a heathen. The fact that she is royalty in Hawaii just makes her a target for bullying at her school. She does develop a close friendship with the family she is staying with; very close in the case of Clive Davies, whom she becomes engaged to. Even after they are married, she is still treated as an outsider.

Meanwhile, things in Hawaii are just as bad as ever for the royal family as they are ousted in a coup, and the attempts to regain power end in a massacre and Hawaii is to be annexed to the United States. Ka'iulani travels to America to try to argue her case for Hawaiian sovereignty, but as the royal family has been disposed, she has no real official power. She is able to convince President Cleveland, but he is a lame duck president and his successor, President McKinley is less sympathetic to her cause and Hawaii is annexed. That's not really a spoiler, as I would hope everyone reading this knows how the story ends. Hawaii is a state, after all, and not a sovereign nation.

Rotten Tomatoes is an amazing site, and I'm not just saying that because I hope to have my reviews posted there someday. It's a great site because it has the best collection of reviews from around the web and you can easily gauge the critical reaction with just one number, the Tomatometer score. However, there are times this system breaks down and certain films are not treated fairly. Princess Ka'iulani is one such film. Right now its Tomatometer score is just 21% positive, which is awful. A number that low usually represents a movie that is an abject failure. However, in reality, this film is merely average in most regards. With the way Rotten Tomatoes calculates the score, a few critics liking the movie, a few hating it, and most saying, "Meh," results in 21% positive.

The story of the doomed princess is one that is worthy of telling, but the script it too by-the-numbers too rise above others in its genre. The performance by Q'Orianka Kilcher makes the film worth seeing, while the costumes, set deign, etc. should please fans of the genre. It is worth checking out, but it is not memorable enough to have high replay value.

The Extras

Extras start with an audio commentary track with writer / director Marc Forby. There's not a lot of dead air here with plenty of stories regarding the cast, historical accuracies, filming locations, etc. However, there's also not a lot of energy. There is a 35-minute featurette on the real Princess Ka'iulani that includes a huge number of archival photographs. There is also a 25-minute long making-of featurette. Given the film's short theatrical run, this is better than expected.

The Verdict

Princess Ka'iulani is worth checking out for fans of costume dramas and worth picking up for those interested in Hawaiian history. It's not perfect, but Q'Orianka Kilcher carries the film, while the DVD has better than expected extras.


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