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'Ice Princess': A Familiar but Pleasant Routine

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page C05

A wit has said that figure skating appeals to young women because it is so much like their private lives, being composed primarily of cliques, gossip and sparkles.

All three are on display in "Ice Princess," a somewhat formulaic if nevertheless crudely effective manipulation of the figure skating themes that all of us girls love so much.

Budding figure skater Casey Carlyle (Michelle Trachtenberg) is torn between academics and athletics in Disney's "Ice Princess." (Rafy -- Copyright Disney Enterprises)

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Will plucky Casey Carlyle (Michelle Trachtenberg, famous as the little sis from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") make it into the cool set of ice princesses that seems to rule her Connecticut high school? Or will she stay true to her mother's wishes and continue on the straight-A, hard-science track to Harvard? Will she get her first kiss from the kid who drives the Zamboni? Will primo ice queen/cheater Tina Harwood (a tough-enough Kim Cattrall) derail Casey's dreams and make her own less motivated, less talented daughter a winner? Does red sparkle eye shadow work better than blue sparkle eye shadow?

The filmmakers, somewhat delusionally, insist that the answers to these questions can't be guessed in the first seven minutes and that most of us will stay around for the obvious yet reassuring revelations, meanwhile eating tubs of oversalted 17-bucks-a-bucket popcorn and lubricating them with gallons of 6-bucks-a-shot Coca-Cola products. They're probably right.

With a script by Hadley Davis that seems to have been constructed from a connect-the-dots schematic of the Big Dipper, the movie is at its most ludicrously arbitrary in its use of Cattrall, last seen randomly seducing men on "Sex and the City." Is she a villain or a heroine? The movie doesn't much care, and simply shifts her placement in the moral scheme this way and that as it progresses. First, she's a snippy snoot who drives Casey out of the ice rink (which she appears to own). Then, spying the talent in the girl, she encourages her -- until Casey appears on the brink of surpassing her own daughter, at which point she harshly and cruelly sabotages her. Finally, simply to avoid introducing a new character, she's pushed back into the heroine role as the coach who trains Casey for her trek to the mythic "regionals." Talk about a utility infielder!

Cattrall is certainly tough enough for all these shifts, and with her steely beauty she dominates nearly every scene she's in. And, all in all, the acting is the best thing about the film. As plucky Casey, Trachtenberg cuts a mean figure as a young woman torn between a life of mind and one of body, who also wouldn't mind a date once in a while. She has the chameleon quality that renders her a knobby-kneed gawky klutz in one scene and, with makeup and tiara, an Aphrodite of the frozen waterworld in the next. As her mother, an overzealous English teacher who dominates her daughter's life rather viciously, Joan Cusack is also good, even if the movie isn't quite hard enough on her. After all, when you buy your kid all her clothes, push her relentlessly in a certain direction and pry into her privacy to keep her on track, you're abusing her, and the film never finds the time to issue her a richly deserved comeuppance.

But the director, Tim Fywell, is best at skate culture. He sketches brief but convincing portraits of the tough-nut little competitors, who play vicious mind games with each other and struggle for every advantage, even as they lament their own empty, driven lives. I particularly like Kirsten Olson as the pint-size Nikki, a cutthroat little vixen who can segue instantly into a flirty media suck-up when an ESPN haircut leans in for a few words. Juliana Cannarozzo has a vivid turn as legendary Zoe Bloch, psyche-master, sassy punk stylist and reigning champ.

And the movie does have a strong sense of the special charisma and beauty of these young demons of grace who ride the thin line between dance and sport with unerring precision. Aware that he's obligated to show more than the frequently televised skate events, Fywell has somehow found a way to swoop the camera down from atop the rink to the surface of the ice, and there, in the same take, stay with the skater as she whirls and slides through the air, dancing around her as effortlessly as she dances around it. That alone makes the short program not merely endurable but enjoyable.

Ice Princess (92 minutes, at area theaters) is rated G and contains no objectionable material.

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