Plot: A talented youngster overcomes parental opposition to shine in his/her chosen field (ice skating) but despairs that the parent hasn't seen what she could do, and whaddya know, the parent lands up in time for her all-important final performance.
I'll give you thirty seconds to name at least seven movies with the same premise. Your time starts now. Go!
The thing about formulae is that they provide the filmmaker with a safe zone. To use an ice skating analogy, it's like the compulsories: you nail all the jumps and the lifts and whatever else, and you're through. When you sit down and watch a movie like, say Kate and Leopold, you can see that principle in action. That movie does absolutely nothing out of the ordinary for a romantic comedy, but doesn't misstep too often, and has a couple of personable stars that you could watch for ninety minutes without cringing.
The problem is, if the maker plays it safe, a guy like me begins to get a little antsy. I wouldn't bemoan the loss of ninety minutes of my life, but I'd sit there wondering whether the guy could've done something more with it. If you're gonna ride the shoulders of giants, the least you could do is jump. Otherwise, what good are you?
The good news is, Ice Princess jumps. And lands on its feet. (Which is more than I can say about my sole experience on a skating rink in Gdansk two years ago, but that's another story.) The way it does this is pretty smart too. Conventional (this is a Disney movie aimed at a specific demographic, after all), but smart nonetheless.
See, one of the problems I have with this particular formula - the crusty coach who supports the talented youngster versus the parent who is horrified that his/her child is deviating from The Plan - is that these characters simply exist at the convenience of the script. You don't see them as people, just as The Mom or The Coach. The way you escape this trap is by doing what you can to humanize them in the audience's eyes.
This movie takes an interesting approach to doing that: it creates a mirror image. So you have Joan Cusack playing the driven mother of Michelle Trachtenberg (the girl is a genius and is all set to go to Harvard, but wants to skate), and on the other side, you have Kim Cattrall playing the mother of Hayden Panettiere (mom's the skating coach, has big plans for her daughter, but the kid just wants a normal life).
The other interesting thing it does is with the Hayden Panettiere character. Usually, this one is written as the snobbish bitch who gets her comeuppance in the rink in the final competition. And when you see her in the beginning, the shoe seems to fit. And then, in a scene of uncommon depth for a movie in this genre, the Trachtenberg character gives her some tips on how to skate better based on a computer program she's written, and they become friends.
I like the way that scene is shot: Hayden finishes skating, and finds that she's doing her jumps better than she used to thanks to Michelle's advice. When she finishes skating, you can see the wonder in her eyes: she has just had a glimpse of perfection in her own work. And Michelle tells her: "The computer doesn't make the jumps. You do." That is, I think, the moment where the movie skips ahead of its formula and charts its own path.