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AT THE MOVIES: Whose Dream Is This, Anyway?: Ice Princess (**)

It’s an odd game of chance, when child actors become too familiar to us on the big screen. What will happen when nature takes its course and morphs their young selves into what will be their adult selves? What happens to someone who looks cute and cuddly as a youngster, then turns into the kind of adult who will never get work?

Half the time, all turns out as expected (Jodie Foster), but the other half of the time, the adult version of the cute and cuddly actor isn’t quite what the kid version was (MacCaulay Culkin). Often, it’s the awkward teenage years that kill young actors’ careers for good. The jury is still out on Haley Joel Osment and of course, one wonders what time and genetics will do to Dakota Fanning.

Someone who won’t have to worry about the transition is Michelle Trachtenberg, who emerges in Disney’s Ice Princess as the perfect blend of goofy girly-ness and poised adulthood – safe for now from the ravages of full maturity.

She played the plucky and adorable Harriet the Spy as a child before joining the cast of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as Buffy’s innocent younger sister. Next came a role in the unfortunate Eurotrip, and now her first real lead, in Ice Princess.

My six-year-old nailed it when she announced upon exiting the theater that Trachtenberg was “just like Ella Enchanted,” meaning she reminded my daughter of Anne Hathaway, star of Disney’s Princess Diaries series. Indeed, both Hathaway and Trachtenberg have bee-stung lips, alabaster skin, and shapely dancer’s bodies – and they play the same type of character: the clumsily pretty outsider who magically transforms into the belle of the ball. And both have been tapped by Disney to become the next generation of ’tween princesses.

Anyone with a daughter knows that princesses are an even-hotter-than-usual franchise these days, and the mere mention of the word sends little girls to the toy store and the multiplex in droves. Which explains why Ice Princess has been such a success with minimal effort on Disney’s part.

Ice Princess is a color-by-the-numbers formula movie with one or two good performances and a predictable, but no less effective ending. It sells on the idea that “passion” is enough of a reason for a Harvard-bound high school senior to chuck it all for the dream of becoming a professional ice skater.

Trachtenberg plays Casey Carlyle, a self-described “science geek” who is nonetheless fascinated by ice-skating. She skates rather lamely outside her house on an ice-covered lake and watches the competitions on television. But her college professor/feminist mom (the always reliable Joan Cusack) is dead set on getting her into Harvard, on a physics scholarship, no less.

But, alas, like most princesses, Casey’s goals are somewhat less ambitious. Not to say that marrying a handsome prince and living happily ever after isn’t what every girl should reach for – but hey, us older princesses know what life has in store for most of us, prince-wise. And so, a physics scholarship to Harvard is often more the mother’s dream than the daughter’s.

Casey sets out to apply her physics knowledge to the world of professional skating. She makes a bold move to film and analyze the up-and-coming skaters at the local rink. They’re coached by hard-ass ex-skater Tina Harwood (Kim Catrell), who makes them skip meals, skip parties and practice, practice, practice – to win, win, win. Casey figures if she can find a mathematical formula for skating, she can improve the girls’ performance flaws and use the resulting data to gain her Harvard scholarship at the same time.

Since she’s at the rink anyway, she decides it would be “good for the scholarship” to take lessons. Well, you can imagine the rest. Hey, it ain’t rocket science. And speaking of rocket science, Casey has the smarts to get into Harvard on a scholarship, yet her abilities are written off as things geeks do, not things ice princesses do.

When Casey goes to a party, she’s disregarded the moment she opens her mouth and starts talking about physics. Of course, we know that bubbling underneath all of that science jibber-jabber is an ice princess just waiting to emerge. We watch her stumble on the ice as she learns to skate, we watch her hide her little skating dress from her mom (who, naturally, believes skating is a frivolous waste of time) and we watch her blossom under the tutelage of Tina.

Eventually, this causes a rift between smart mother and daughter. In a parallel story, Tina’s own daughter, whom she’s been grooming and coaching to be the next Tina Harwood, decides she’d rather go out for burgers, and out with her friends, than be a professional skater.

It is Casey’s passion that will ultimately be harnessed by Tina, and a star skater will be born. (Interestingly, Tina is no shining example, as she never gives up her insistence that the girls skip meals to stay thin, and she even cheats in order to “win at all costs.”)

As Casey, Trachtenberg is all she needs to be: wide-eyed, pretty, and humble, a la previous princesses Hilary Duff and Lindsay Lohan. And Trachtenberg herself has been making the talk show rounds, describing how important it was for her to send the message to little girls that they “can do anything they want to do” if they have enough “passion,” and that they should “never give up” and “follow their dreams.”

In the end, it’s impossible not to root for Casey to succeed as a skater, to “fulfill her dream” — which feels a little weird in retrospect. After all, we know what’s waiting for Casey on the other side of a short amateur ice-skating career. (And what could be waiting for her at the end of a Harvard education, but I digress…) Do we care? We try not to. Do the little girls in the audience care? Definitely not. They just know they like her. And want to be like her. For now. Luckily for all of us, there’s no future looming, no past to live with, at the movies.

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