This week, Netflix’s unrivaled Queen of Christmas, Vanessa Hudgens, is donning her tiara once again in the third installment of the Princess Switch series. I’m just going to go ahead and answer the question on everybody’s mind right off the bat: No, Vanessa Hudgens does not play a fourth character in The Princess Switch 3: Romancing the Star.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Princess Switch saga, all you really need to know is that Vanessa Hudgens plays several characters who are royal either by birth or marriage and live in a fictional Christmas-obsessed kingdom. The various Vanessas switch places all the time, much to the annoyance and confusion of their respective good-looking husbands. Even though they are identical (you know, since they’re played by the same actor), they’re not sisters, because that would make too much sense, but distant cousins.
The latest sequel is a staggering, unnecessary one hour and 45 minutes long (which is not that long for a normal movie, but is borderline unbearable in the world of Christmas-themed romcoms). Literally the only reason to watch the whole film is the unspoken promise of seeing four different Vanessa Hudgenses on screen at once, preferably all in different wigs and doing different accents. I kept waiting for the moment to come, pausing to check how much time was left to squeeze in a big reveal in which someone turns around (perhaps a redhead this time?) and—bam!—it’s the High School Musical alum. Another identical fourth cousin! This time she’s Russian! The creators of this godforsaken series had one job.
Instead, we get a meandering plot involving a priceless Christmas tree topper, rumored to have once belonged to Saint Nicholas himself and priority-shipped to the fictional country of Montenaro directly from the Vatican for an international holiday festival.
The so-called “Star of Peace” is obviously stolen within the first seven minutes of the movie, so Margaret (British Vanessa) and Stacy (Chicago White Sox fan Vanessa) enlist the help of their conniving cousin Fiona (evil blonde Vanessa), who is fulfilling a community service sentence at a convent after trying to stage a coup in the last film. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. For a full 45 minutes, I was positive that they had recast several major characters, only to confirm on IMDb that the guy on my TV was in fact the same Prince Edward I have seen before in two other movies. That should tell you everything you need to know about my Princess Switch plot retention from year to year.
As Fiona, Hudgens does her best impression of Emma Stone playing Cruella de Vil. Or maybe—and I really think I might be onto something here—Stone modeled her performance in Disney’s 101 Dalmations spin-off on Hudgens’s charismatic yet devastatingly underappreciated turn in The Princess Switch 2: Switched Again. The latter did come out first, after all.
Regardless, the Princess Switch crew absolutely saw Cruella over the summer and drew, ahem, heavy inspiration. Of the criminal plot to steal back the Star of Peace, evil blonde Vanessa drawls in an affected accent, “Sounds like a gas!” The color palette of her wardrobe consists entirely of black, white, and red. She has two bumbling minions who, as I’ve pointed out in the past, resemble Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir. In every scene, she is wearing a different ostentatious headpiece, and her white-blonde wig from the last film now features dark black roots. At one point she actually threatens to turn a spotted Great Dane into a fur coat. You honestly have to respect the audacity of such a blatant rip-off.
Just when I fear that Princess Switch 3: Romancing the Star is taking itself too seriously by denying viewers the absurd joy of introducing another Vanessa Hudgens character, there is a meticulously choreographed tango between British Vanessa and evil blonde Vanessa. Or a much-too long scene in which two characters seductively shimmy around laser beams to avoid triggering a security alarm. Or the cheesy Christmas-film classic—some lingering camera work and emotional music meant to imply that a random, kindly old white dude might be Santa Claus in disguise.
Still, it was a missed opportunity to tease the reveal of Fiona’s absentee mother, always slightly out of frame in flashbacks, only for her to be an actual older British lady and not Vanessa Hudgens in makeup. Needless to say, I expected more from the streaming service that sprung for CGI technology to de-age Robert de Niro in The Irishman. Is it too much to ask to give Vanessa Hudgens a few prosthetic wrinkles, as a Christmas treat?