Casey Carlyle (Michelle Trachtenberg, "EuroTrip") is a high school physics geek looking for a summer project that will help her win a scholarship to Harvard. She decides to explore figure skating for its scientific properties, but soon falls in love with the sport. Under the demanding tutelage of her coach (Kim Cattrall), and behind her education-obsessed mother's back (Joan Cusack), Casey begins to show great promise on the ice. Her skating gifts soon take precedence over her educational goals, threatening her tight relationship with her mother and the quality of her future.
Watching "Ice Princess" (IMDb listing), I couldn't help but wonder what happened to that old Disney formula. You mean the popular girl (Hayden Panettiere) is actually decent and kind? The mother isn't some harping quack, but an educated and humane individual? The "cute guy" (Trevor Blumas) isn't a jock? And the ice princess of the title doesn't come from out of nowhere and start scooping up gold medals, but is prone to falling and anxiety? "Ice Princess" doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel, but under the direction of Tim Fywell ("I Capture the Castle"), the picture is an agreeable, unexpected charmer. It cannot snap cliche in two, but at least it has the desire to bend formula a little.
Though oddly billed third, it's Michelle Trachtenberg's dependable performance that carries "Ice Princess" for the entire running time. Trachtenberg has an unquestionably natural onscreen presence, and she gives the material an honest reading, restraining herself from giving in to the melodramatic moments of the screenplay, but still fully aware that this is a G-rated affair for Disney. Trachtenberg knows what to give to the camera, whether it's WB style silliness in the film's conventional teen party sequence, or steely-eyed determination for the skating set pieces, which, through her own abilities and the magic of special effects, she sells incredibly well. "Ice Princess" is nothing without Trachtenberg's performance, for she is the glue that holds the film together when the drama gets to be cyclical, when the camerawork creeps into "NYPD Blue" territory, and when Disney decides to include Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet" on the soundtrack, but has someone else sing it. Those are pretty big cinema sins that Trachtenberg has to compensate for.
Incidentally, it must be noted that Trachtenberg and co-star Kim Cattrall ("Sex and the City") are both coming off of highly sexual acting jobs, and are now transitioning to this gentle, all-ages dramedy. It really shows the range of these actresses, particularly Trachtenberg, who in "EuroTrip" plunged headfirst into some hilarious but profoundly un-Disney material, only to show up here like nothing ever happened.
The film skirts convention throughout, but only rarely gives in and follows its melodramatic leanings. These moments are saved by the ice skating sequences, which show off the beauty of the sport along with the harsh realities of competition. While not an authoritative, barn-burning production, "Ice Princess" does what it does very well, and by not giving into every last studio whim, sets itself apart from a horde of similar product.
Filmfodder Grade: B