Getting ready for the Winter Olympics? Here’s a good place to start.
When I tell you that this is the story of a brainy but shy girl who dreams of being a champion figure skater and that she meets up with a demanding anything-to-win coach and a cute guy who drives the Zamboni machine, you may think that there won’t be any surprises. But there are, and they’re all nice ones.
First is the characters, who rise above the level of the usual bland interchangeable stick figures for movies of this kind. Michelle Trachtenberg brings a nice shy spirit to Casey, the aspiring scientist/skater, and she has able support from the always-engaging Joan Cusack as her mother and the nicely flinty Kim Cattrall as the coach. Second is that this is not a classic “makeover movie.” Casey gets a bit of a touch-up with some eye-liner and an outfit with some sequins but she is no Cinderella who is transformed with a wand. She studies hard, takes a part-time job to play for her expenses, and spends hours practicing. And the boy who likes her admires her intelligence and dedication, before the eye-liner and sparkles. But the nicest surprise is that after a spate of “mean girl” movies, this one gives us a character who competes with Casey but is honest, loyal, and supportive.
This is a story of a girl with a dream, but it is also the story of two mothers with dreams for their daughters, both based on dreams of their own that did not come true.
Casey’s mother wants her daughter to become a brilliant scholar. She also wants Casey to dress in sensible (dowdy and middle-aged) clothes. She does not like the “twinkie little outfits” that figure skaters wear and admits that “no matter how old the rest of us get, we will still always hate the prom queen.”
Tina (Cattrall) was once a figure skating champion who made a mistake that cost her a chance at an Olympic gold medal. She wants her daughter Gen (Hayden Panettiere) to get the gold medal she could not have. She thinks she knows what it takes to survive in competitive skating. “When the CIA wants to learn new dirty tricks, they study figure skaters and their moms.”
When Gen tells her that she wants more than skating in her life, she does not listen. Casey thinks she cannot tell her mother that she does not want the career her mother has set her heart on. Both mothers have to learn that their daughters are entitled to their own dreams. The daughters have to learn that, too.
The story had an assist from “The Princess Diaries” author Meg Cabot, which may be why it feels like it should be called “Ice Princess Diaries.” (Maybe someday they will find a way to include a father in one of these movies, as Cabot does in her books.*) But the formula is nicely played out, with sincerity and sweetness enough to inspire the young viewers to come up with some dreams of their own.
Parents should know that the movie has some tense confrontations, some mild language (“that pretty much blew”) and a few kisses. There is a skating costume that appears to show more chest than some in the audience will think appropriate for a teenager and a brief shot of a painful-looking wound.
Families who see this movie should talk about the most important advice that Casey gets from Gen. Why does Casey decide to trust Tina? How does Casey decide what is most important to her? What does she learn from her mother and what does she learn from Tina?
Families who see this movie should talk about the mothering styles of Joan and Tina. How are they alike, how are they different, and what do they have in common with your family?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Princess Diaries, like this film, based on a book by Meg Cabot. Older viewers will enjoy some other ice skating movies like The Cutting Edge, Ice Castles and the movies starring real-life Olympic gold medalist Sonja Henie. This story has a lot in common with the classic children’s book, Skating Shoes, part of the “Shoes” series by Noel Streatfeild, well worth reading aloud at bedtime. Families will also enjoy seeing Trachtenberg in Harriet the Spy, Cusack in School of Rock, and Panettiere in Remember the Titans and in Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, as the voice of an ant princess named Dot.
*Many thanks to the Meg Cabot fans who wrote in to tell me that there is a loving father in the Princess Diaries books.