"Ice Princess" may be a Disney release, and it may be rated G, and it may be targeted to pre-teen girls, but such facts do not suggest the level of seriousness with which director Tim Fywell (2003's "I Capture the Castle") and screenwriter Hadley Davis (TV's "Scrubs") treat its, in essence, stock plotting. There have been a handful of pictures centering on the under-appreciated art of ice-skating, some better1992's tough romance, "The Cutting Edge"and some much worse1978's unintentionally hilarious weep-a-thon, "Ice Castles"but not so many overall that the mere sight of a triple lutz in a movie puts one in a state of restless fatigue. Sure, "Ice Princess" sticks pretty closely to the mold of any other sports flick, but there is a tenderness and refreshing lack of compromise that has been assembled from its spare parts.
Harvard-bound Casey Carlyle (Michelle Trachtenberg) is a straight-A student and a whiz at physics, a girl mostly unnoticed in the halls of her high school who has been raised by her hardworking mother (Joan Cusack) for a scholarly future. One day, a project for her physics class leads Casey to the local ice-skating rink, where several of her classmates, including Gen Harwood (Hayden Panettiere), put-upon daughter of stern coach Tina (Kim Cattrall), are being trained to go to the nationals. Casey finds skating interesting, but it is not until she scrapes up enough money to step on the ice and join the novice class that she discovers a natural talent for the sport. For plain-jane Casey, it is her newfound love for skating that suddenly makes her feel like a beautiful somebody with a purpose. Unfortunately, this purpose and passion does not meet the expectations of her mother, who believes working as a professional athlete is a short-lived job with zero future prospects.
"Ice Princess," which Disney surely hopes will emulate the success of 2001's charming "The Princess Diaries
" and 2004's abysmal "The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement
," contains only superficial hints of wish-fulfillment fantasy. This is not a cookie-cutter production with easy answers and one-note characters, but, as much as a G-rated family film can be, a more honest examination of a lost teenage girl discovering her passion and doing all that she can to achieve her dreams. As such, Casey is presented as a young woman with a real knack for skating, but one who has started a little late in life to realistically hope for a first-place finish. Casey does not become perfect overnight, but she also refuses to give up, and as the film ends she still has a ways to go to be the best she can be.
A minimum is learned about the technical skill that ice-skating demands, but director Tim Fywell does a fine job of deepening the behind-the-scenes interactions of its skaters and coaches. None of the people on display are cut-and-dry good or bad types, but flawed individuals capable of making mistakes or choosing to do the wrong thing. In Gen's case, played in an auspiciously non-stereotypical performance by the talented Hayden Panettiere (2005's "Racing Stripes
"), she has been forced by her trainer mom into a sport she doesn't enjoy at the price of a typical teenage life that includes movies, parties, food, and boys. In this aspect, the movie reminds of 2000's overlooked ballet-set "Center Stage
." As for Gen's mom, Tina, she has put pressure on her daughter to be the best in an attempt to gain the success she herself was not able to have as a young skater. Tina loves Gen, but she only sees what she wants to see, sometimes doing whatever necessary to help her daughter go further in the cutthroat world of ice-skating competitions. In her first project following the end of HBO's groundbreaking "Sex and the City," Kim Cattrall (2002's "Crossroads
") is totally convincing as the aggressive, brutally frank Tina Harwood; it is exceedingly obvious that the actress has studied the personalities and body language of the coaches seen during the Olympics, and she has gotten said traits down to a science.
The strife that begins between Casey and her own mom, who is against skating and wishes for her daughter to have the college education she never had, takes a more predictable path. Ms. Carlyle's open disdain when she discovers what Casey has been doing behind her back is overwrought, and it comes as no surprise when she finally comes around during the finale, but Joan Cusack (2003's "The School of Rock
") blesses the part with an emotional gravity that could have gone missing in lesser hands.
Michelle Trachtenberg (2004's "Eurotrip
") makes for an identifiable protagonist as the suddenly empowered Casey Carlyle, reigning back the sarcastic, at times bratty, energy she brought to TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Also, either Trachtenberg and her co-starring peers are all skilled ice skaters or the film has done a meticulous and clever job of replacing stunt skaters without it ever being noticeable. What is discouraging, though, is the mixed messages the picture sends out to young viewers about what constitutes attractiveness. For most of the film, Casey is supposed to be something of a wallflower, only blossoming to her fullest after Gen splashes her face with mascara and lipstick. The problem with this is that Trachtenberg is a natural beauty who doesn't need, nor should she, a cosmetic makeover. "The Princess Diaries
" ran into this same problem, and it is a wrongheaded misstep that mars the film's more valuable morals about being yourself and taking chances.
"Ice Princess" creates a checklist as it goes of the elements that makes up a sports movie formula. There are a bunch of music montages, perhaps two too many. There is the requisite love interest for Casey in the form of Gen's Zamboni-driving brother, Teddy (Trevor Blumas). There are the training scenes, complete with a lot of nasty spills on the ice. And there is the climactic championship match that Casey's mom arrives just in time to see her girl perform at. Because the film isn't about any of the big threefootball, basketball, or baseballthe cliches it presents are more tolerable, aided by a smart, knowledgeable side that portrays ice-skating as appealing and fun to watch, but not always made of wine and roses. "Ice Princess" recognizes that to succeed at the sport takes not only a lot of hard work, but also born ability, and there is no doubt by the satisfying conclusion that Casey Carlyle has what it takes to, eventually, make it to the top.