The Wild (2006)

It’s rare to see Disney accused of ripping off a DreamWorks picture, but that’s what happened in the case of The Wild, released a year after the well-received Madagascar. Both cartoons feature zoo animals uprooted from their sheltered lives and forced to adapt to life in the wild, but where DreamWorks’ effort told the story with wit and charm, The Wild is mostly a slog due to uninspired casting, weak writing, and dull character design.

I guess it’s unfair to call this a Disney movie, since it was actually made by C.O.R.E. Feature Animation. But by distributing the picture under their Buena Vista Pictures label, Disney made sure their name was attached to the project. And it hardly seems worthy of a brand that prides itself on quality feature animation.

The problems begin with the casting. Kiefer Sutherland, Eddie Izzard, Jim Belushi, and Janeane Garofalo are all skilled actors whose work I often enjoy. But with the exception of Izzard, they aren’t exactly larger than life, a quality that’s crucial for voice acting. Some of that can be fixed by the director; Tom Hanks and Tim Allen knew they had to deliver heightened, exaggerated versions of their normal voices while acting in the Toy Story films. But here, the actors are mostly speaking in a flat tone that sticks the animators with sole responsibility for making the characters stand out.

The lifeless eyes of the characters make it hard to focus on the story.

Which brings us to problem number two: The characters just aren’t interesting to look at. It seems like the orders from director Steve Williams were to make them look like realistic animals, which creates an Uncanny Valley effect when they talk (Disney would fail to remember this lesson when they remade The Lion King years later).

With the combined issues of casting and animation, the only avenue left is to tell a fun, compelling story. Like I mentioned earlier, the plot of The Wild is mostly a rehash of Madagascar, with some familial strife added as the lion played by Sutherland struggles to bond with his young son while attempting to return home to the zoo. The movie’s twist, if it can be called one, is that despite talking a big game about being born in the wild, Sutherland’s character is actually a circus lion who was sent to the zoo because he couldn’t roar. This fails to add any interest to the proceedings.

The movie’s lone bright spot is the performance of professional comedian Izzard as a neurotic koala. Izzard mostly sticks to her stand-up persona and delivers absurd lines in a wonderfully droll tone. A subplot where the koala is mistaken for a god by a herd of wildebeests generates most of the movie’s meager laughs.

I highly recommend skipping this one.


Eight Below (2006)

Frank Marshall’s Eight Below joins a long tradition of Disney films which center the relationships between humans and animals. It’s a loose remake of 1983’s Antarctica, which in turn was based on the real-life Japanese expedition to Antarctica in 1958. During that trek, 15 sled dogs were abandoned at the base when the expedition team was unable to return. When they finally managed to return a year later, two of the dogs were still alive to greet them.

Well, that high a body count wouldn’t really fly in a Disney flick, particularly when dogs are involved. So this remake gives us the same general story with a cheerier ending, as well as a long section imagining what the dogs got up to in the frozen wasteland while waiting for their masters to return.

Paul Walker stars as the owner and trainer of the dogs. He’s a guide at an Antarctica research base who uses his team of sled dogs to ferry scientists to and fro. During one such trip, he takes a scientist (Bruce Greenwood) to Mount Melbourne in search of a fallen meteorite from Mercury. Greenwood persuades Walker to extend their trip despite worsening weather. When they finally make it back, an approaching storm forces them to evacuate the base, leaving the sled dogs tied up behind to wait for the next flight back.

Walker then spends the next five months trying to secure a flight back to rescue his pooches, but no one will fund the expedition.

An early rescue finds Paul Walker flanked by the movie’s real stars as they attempt to save a scientist.

Walker’s story takes up most of the first half of the film, and he acquits himself well in his second Disney outing (the less said about the dreadful Meet the Deedles, the better). There are several big time jumps in the story, and thankfully it isn’t long before he is tracked down by Greenwood, who agrees to finance a rescue mission to get the dogs.

We then get an extended flashback showing the same five months from the point of view of the dogs. Your mileage may vary with these scenes. Several of the dogs die or get hurt, which could be upsetting for little kids watching. Obviously, no one knows exactly how the real-life dogs survived all that time, so a fair amount of artistic license is taken here. Frank Marshall stages these sequences well, focusing on just one or two of the dogs as the “heroes” instead of making the audience try to tell the difference between eight huskies. He gives us an energetic and scary action scene as the hungry dogs do battle with a sea lion over an orca carcass, and a quieter moment early on when the dogs stop to stare at the southern lights in the night sky.

These scenes, while well done, go on just a bit too long, and it’s a relief in more ways than one when Walker and his team finally make it to the base just in time for the dogs to make their triumphant return.

At two hours and with some intense sequences, this one maybe isn’t ideal for smaller children, despite all the cute doggies on display. And adults will probably be bored by the human characters, who aren’t terribly well-developed. A love interest played by Moon Bloodgood and a comic relief sidekick played by Jason Biggs fail to make much of an impact, but Walker and Greenwood do just enough to keep us interested until the dogs show up.


Godzilla Vs Kong (2021)

Legendary’s “Monsterverse” has spent the last seven years trying to nail the correct formula for their giant monster (or “Kaiju”) flicks. They’ve gone from the grim and realistic Godzilla (2014) to the loud and stupid Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), with 2017’s Kong: Skull Island finding a decent balance between the two approaches.

With this latest entry, the studio has seemingly gone all in on the “loud and stupid” strategy, for good and ill. We join the story roughly three years after the events of King of the Monsters. Humanity has grown accustomed to giant lizards and apes wandering all over the place, and Godzilla himself is viewed as a protector of mankind, though he’s been absent for a while.

When the great lizard reappears, he shocks his human friends by laying waste to a scientific research facility in Florida before retreating back to the sea. This sets in motion several plots as our human characters resolve to suss out what’s gotten on the beast’s nerves. Millie Bobby Brown returns in her role from King of the Monsters, now a teenage conspiracy junkie who embarks on a trek to uncover the secrets behind the company Godzilla attacked. She’s accompanied by Brian Tyree Henry and Julian Dennison, who spend the movie exchanging quips and comic one liners as if they’re being paid by the word.

Far more interesting (and entertaining) is the plot involving Kong, who has been conscripted into service in order to find an ancient power source that can defeat Godzilla. This plan is laid out for us in hilariously rushed fashion by Alexander Skarsgård, who knows an easy paycheck when he sees one. Skarsgård has been alerted to the existence of this power source by the movie’s villain, who has his own reasons for wanting it. And no, that’s not a spoiler. The movie makes sure you know this guy is the villain the second you lay eyes on him.

So Skarsgård meets up with an old colleague (Rebecca Hall) who now spends her time observing the giant ape at his home of Skull Island, accompanied by her adopted daughter (Kaylee Hottle), a deaf girl who shares a strong, unspoken bond with Kong. Together, this crew ventures to the center of the earth, where they believe creatures like Kong and Godzilla originated. This sequence is the franchise’s first real brush with science fiction, and it opens up the series to some exciting new story opportunities.

Alas, for now we’re just here to find the power source (not to mention a useful giant axe that Kong has the presence of mind to pick up) and then it’s back to the surface for a showdown with Godzilla in the middle of Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong finale makes good use of the city’s distinctive skyline.

This climactic battle (which includes a surprise third contender) is intended as the scene to get audiences into theaters after a year spent at home social distancing, and it gives fans of the franchise exactly what they want, I suppose. I personally would’ve liked a more human perspective. Outside of one shot that shows city residents fleeing into the subway, Hong Kong might as well be a Safety Town-style miniature city, with the giant brutes slamming each other into skyscrapers that don’t seem to have any real weight or presence.

For all the (deserved) criticisms of the human characters in Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla flick, he at least understood the importance of using them as the audience POV. Godzilla and his enemies seemed so gargantuan in that movie because Edwards resolutely kept the camera at a human’s eye level. In Godzilla Vs Kong, it’s like we’re watching someone play a video game. There’s no sense of scale. I will, however, give director Adam Wingard credit for at least making the monsters visible, something his predecessor neglected to do with King of the Monsters. Gone is the endless snow, smoke, fog, and rain that obstructed our view of every fight scene in that movie.

Nitpicking aside, the fight has its share of crowd-pleasing moments, and isn’t that the whole point? I was rooting for Kong, and I imagine most viewers will be as well. It’s not that he is the more popular character overall, but that we spend much more time with him in this movie, and he has the closest thing to a character arc of anyone in the cast. He has a multitude of fun moments with his young human friend, and their bond keeps us grounded somewhat as the plot grows sillier and sillier.

I can’t end this review without mentioning the run time. For as many moving parts as this story had, Wingard somehow kept it to a brief two hours, which is the perfect length for a movie like this. Could we be nearing the end of the age of needlessly bloated blockbusters? One can only hope.

I don’t know where this franchise is going next. I still prefer the more somber, earthbound approach of the 2014 movie (and the original 1954 Godzilla, for that matter). But if we’re going this route, I’d rather have more like this and fewer like King of the Monsters. This is a perfectly fine piece of entertainment to kick off the summer.


I Vitelloni (1953)

During the course of I Vitelloni, several characters leave the small coastal village that provides its setting, some permanently and some temporarily. While their goodbyes are emotional, our attention is drawn to the oppressive silence that follows in the wake of these departures. Federico Fellini knows these places. He knows their paralyzing comfort, and he knows the intense desire to escape them.

Though he became known for grand, bold images in later masterpieces like 8½, Amarcord, and La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s greatness sprung from his ability to visualize intensely personal experiences and feelings. This quality infects every second of I Vitelloni as we follow roughly a year in the lives of a small group of friends aimlessly drifting through their twenties.

The action kicks off with the revelation that Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), the shameless womanizer of the group, has gotten a young woman pregnant. Her name is Sandra (Leonora Ruffo), and she is the sister of Fausto’s friend Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi). The reactions of both men portend much of their behavior throughout the film: Fausto’s first instinct is to leave town to avoid responsibility for his actions, while Moraldo looks on in silent disappointment yet does little to challenge his friend. It’s only after being shamed by his father that Fausto does the right thing and marries Sandra.

The two leave on their honeymoon, and we get to spend a little time with Fausto and Moraldo’s other friends. Riccardo (Riccardo Fellini) is an aspiring, if unmotivated, singer and actor. Alberto (Alberto Sordi) clings desperately to the stability of his family, which is imperiled by his sister’s ongoing affair with a married man. And Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste) is an amateur playwright who fancies himself the only artist in a town of philistines.

These men, it should be pointed out, are all unemployed and living at home. They are layabouts (the literal definition of the film’s title) who spend their days wandering the beach and their nights partying. Moraldo seems, at first glance, to be the most mature and responsible of the group, but his devotion to his friends tends to override his better impulses. Even during their worst behavior – which runs the gamut from harassing women on the street all the way to theft – he offers little more than token admonishments.

Moraldo and friends, as they so often do, sit and wait for something to happen

Which brings us back to Fausto. Having returned from his honeymoon, the lad gets a job at a local shop and attempts to be a dutiful husband. But his eye wanders almost immediately, and his repeated betrayals of Sandra are all the more cruel for how obvious they are. He does love her, as evidenced by how the sight of her tears seems to devastate him so, but like a child he continues his bad behavior before finally being taught a lesson.

While the text above more or less paints a picture of what happens in the movie, I can’t possibly put into words the sense of place Fellini injects into the film. I’ve never set foot in Italy, yet the village in I Vitelloni is as familiar to me as my own hometown. There are moments so carefully drawn that they could be anecdotes from anyone’s family, moments that made me chuckle with recognition. I particularly loved a scene where a hungover Alberto returns home from a masquerade ball to find that his sister is leaving town with her married lover. Tearfully commiserating with his mother, Alberto resolves to get a job and become the breadwinner of the family.

“Oh, do you have something lined up?” asks his mother. “No”, he replies, before falling into a chair and instantly passing out.

Fellini’s love for these characters bleeds through the screen. Their foibles and shortcomings are so touchingly rendered that you wonder if they’re not based on real people from the director’s life. Moraldo certainly seems like he could be autobiographical. I definitely identified with him, especially the way he hovers at the edge of his circle of friends, desiring their warmth yet longing to see what else is out there.

If you haven’t seen any of Fellini’s work, this is a pretty good movie with which to introduce yourself to him. It’s as accessible as any film he’s made, and its charm seems unlikely to ever fade.


Glory Road (2006)

Some movies really should have been documentaries. Glory Road, which chronicles Texas Western College’s 1966 NCAA basketball championship, is one such movie. The facts of the story are compelling: Coach Don Haskins recruited talented Black players during a time when college basketball – and much of the country – was still segregated. He then doubled down in the championship game and fielded an all-Black lineup against the formidable University of Kentucky team, which was coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp. It’s easy to imagine ESPN turning this into a great installment of 30-for-30.

Unfortunately, as a movie it feels very formulaic. Remember the Titans already did a good job of mixing the excitement of a sports movie with the drama of racial tensions, and the only way the filmmakers could have made this movie stand out would’ve been to lean more heavily into the latter.

As it is, they tried to evenly balance it with the basketball action, which unfortunately doesn’t hold up all that well. Everything happens a little too quickly. Haskins (Josh Lucas) travels around the country recruiting his players, and any reservations they have are addressed and discarded almost as an afterthought. We get the customary scenes of the coach’s assistants questioning his decisions, but these feel so perfunctory it’s as if the movie is just checking items off a list so it can get to the good stuff.

The problem is that “the good stuff” is pretty standard sports movie fare. The on-court action hews so closely to the style and rhythm of every other basketball movie that the ending is never in doubt, even for those unfamiliar with the true story.

Lucas and the actors portraying his players do solid work with what little they are given. Mehcad Brooks has one of the meatier roles as team captain Harry Flournoy, but even he gets few opportunities to explore the interior life of his character.

Die-hard college basketball fans will probably be at least interested in the story if not blown away. Although this doesn’t include students and alumni of the University of Kentucky or Texas A&M, who vocally objected to their portrayal in the movie upon release.

Which goes to show: if you play it safe and still manage to upset people, maybe it would’ve been worth the risk of saying something bold with this story.


The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)

In the mid-2000s we were hit with a swarm of fantasy epics as Hollywood frantically searched for the next worldwide sensation. The Harry Potter movies were being churned out every year or two to massive box office results, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy’s sweep of the 2004 Academy Awards was still fresh in everyone’s minds.

It was in the midst of this landscape that Walt Disney Pictures greenlit an adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ popular Chronicles of Narnia children’s books. The books contained many of the elements that made Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films so successful, but were geared towards younger readers. If ever a decision was a no-brainer, it was this one.

Disney entrusted the movie – and its $180 million budget – to New Zealand director Andrew Adamson, whose irreverent Shrek (2001) had made Disney’s rival studio DreamWorks a major player in the animation game. The result was a quality entry in the epic fantasy genre.

The story concerns four English children who are evacuated to a country manor during the Blitz in World War II. There they find a miraculous wardrobe that transports them to the fantastical land of Narnia, which is inhabited by talking animals and other magical creatures. Upon arrival, they are swept up in an epic struggle between deposed King Aslan (a lion voiced by Liam Neeson) and the evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton).

James McAvoy’s Mr. Tumnus is a charming introduction to Narnia for both Lucy (Georgie Henley) and the viewer

There is a lot of narrative ground to cover, and the movie wisely uses every bit of its 2.5 hour running time to make sure every new character and plot development gets an appropriate introduction. Our first glimpse of Narnia occurs when youngest sibling Lucy (Georgie Henley) wanders through the wardrobe and befriends a faun named Tumnus (James McAvoy). She later returns followed by her brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes), but he takes a wrong turn and falls under the influence of the White Witch, who promises him sweet treats (Edmund’s loyalty is easily won). These meetings dole out enough exposition that by the time all four children enter Narnia together, we are ready to jump right ahead with the adventure.

And what an adventure! The children encounter talkative beavers, noble centaurs, a crafty and brave fox, sinister wolves, and even Father Christmas on their travels. Their new friends inform them that they are destined to be the rulers of Narnia by decree of an ancient prophecy (it’s always a prophecy). But to fulfill their destiny, they will need to team up with Aslan to defeat the White Witch once and for all.

The movie sets up the threat posed by the Witch quite effectively, and a late moment when she seems to triumph is suitably dark and intense, maybe too much so for younger viewers. This is a story that earns its payoff.

The production design is wonderful. Like with the Lord of the Rings films, no expense was spared when it came to bringing Narnia to life. The makeup, costumes, and digital effects reflect the large budget. It FEELS like a big movie.

My one complaint, and I know it won’t be shared by everyone, is that Adamson perhaps plays it too safe with the material. None of the mischievous humor from his Shrek movies is present here, so we don’t feel a personal touch like we did with Jackson’s Lord of the Rings saga or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, both of which featured copious amounts of the directors’ trademark grisly humor.

But with so much money on the line, you can hardly blame Disney and Adamson for their decision to play it straight. And it paid off for them, as the movie made $745 million at the box office and led to two sequels.

If you’re in the mood for a good fantasy epic, you can’t go wrong with this one.


Chicken Little (2005)

No longer content with just distributing Pixar’s films, Disney decided to get into the game themselves with Chicken Little, their first fully computer animated feature (Dinosaur was a blend of animation and live action). Directed by Mark Dindal (The Emperor’s New Groove), the movie represented a decision by Disney to move away from traditional animation and fairy tales. Computer animated comedies would make up most of their animated output for a while.

But divorced from history, how is the movie itself?

It’s okay. Disney played it safe here by updating an old folk tale about a chicken who gets hit in the head by an acorn and concludes that the sky is falling. In this version, it turns out the chicken is right, although no one believes him.

That’s right – him. The initial pitch included a female main character, but this was nixed by studio chief Michael Eisner in favor of making Chicken Little a boy. This meant that eight months of voice work by Holly Hunter were thrown out, and the part was recast with popular television actor Zach Braff.

Braff is fine in the role, but I still wish we could’ve seen the movie as originally envisioned by Dindal. And just like that, I’ve strayed off topic again.

Chicken Little in this movie is a diminutive go-getter who wants to be liked and respected by his peers. This is difficult, because he has already garnered a reputation for starting false alarms about the sky falling. But a new school year is starting, and he is determined to start over fresh. He gets off to a disastrous start by missing the bus on his first day, but he eventually manages to redeem his reputation by hitting a game winning home run for his baseball team.

Chicken Little (Zach Braff) attempts to salvage his reputation

Convinced that things are finally going to turn around for him, Little is dismayed to once again be struck by an object falling from the sky. But this time, he keeps it to himself and his small circle of friends until they can present proof of what’s actually happening, which turns out to be nothing less than an alien invasion.

I love reading about the art of animation, so it was with interest that I discovered the animators on this movie delved into the company archives to make sure they were observing the same principles that led to the studio’s early success. They even studied the influential How to Play Baseball short from 1942, starring Goofy. The results are mixed. They certainly supplied the movie with a large cast of friendly and funny looking characters, but unfortunately none of them make much of an impression.

The movie is definitely energetic, and I imagine young kids will enjoy the antics of Little and his friends. He has a humorous buddy named Fish Out of Water, who wears a scuba helmet filled with water and communicates via pantomime. And there are some fun moments during the climax as the youngsters sneak on board an alien spaceship for some reconnaissance, and meet a furry little creature named Kirby.

But overall, the movie really doesn’t compare to Disney’s earlier efforts. Despite the efforts of the artists, it really doesn’t have the personality that even the studio’s lesser 2D films possessed in spades.


The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005)

Sports movies have been growing on me lately. I think it’s because they manage to tell clear moral stories with good characters and bad characters without having to rely on violence. But they also contain the potential for comedy, romance, and character studies. Case in point: The Greatest Game Ever Played, directed by long-time screen actor Bill Paxton, is an engrossing story about a young man (Shia LeBeouf) defying the class system in order to play golf, a game he has loved since he was little. It’s also an exciting recount of a great moment in sports history.

LeBeouf plays Francis Ouimet, who in 1913 became the first amateur golfer in history to win the U.S. Open. Impressive enough by itself, this feat gains extra importance due to the time in which he played. America was observing the class system as fervently as Britain ever did, which meant a working class immigrant like Francis could only access a golf course as a caddy.

We follow Francis as he toils at the local golf club. Through hard work and good manners, his skill at the game catches the eye of several club members, including the president of the U.S. Golf Association, who persuades Francis to enter the upcoming U.S. Open.

Across the ocean, Francis’ competition comes into focus in the form of Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), a legendary British golf pro who has agreed to participate in the tournament at the behest of the snobbish Lord Bullock, who wants to assert British dominance in the sport.

Francis (Shia LeBeouf) sizes up the next hole while his young caddy looks on

The tournament takes up the better part of the last third of the movie, and Paxton does a good job keeping the action exciting by focusing on the internal struggles of the golfers. Francis has tremendous talent but proves easily distracted, particularly after making the acquaintance of the lovely Sarah Wallis (Peyton List). It doesn’t help his focus that his disapproving father has vowed to kick him out of the house at tournament’s end.

And Vardon has his own distractions, which stem from his complicated relationship to the strict class system entrenched in the culture of golf. Like Francis, he has a seat at the table due to his skill. But he knows he doesn’t belong, and a harrowing childhood memory of his home being demolished to make room for a course appears before him at inopportune times during the match.

Paxton balances all of these elements with uncommon skill, and it’s a shame he did not direct any more features after this. I particularly loved how he presented the third round of the tournament as a montage, with the cuts growing more rapid and the score steadily rising as the golfers struggled through the pouring rain.

Shia LeBeouf again displays the everyman appeal that marked his early performances, and keeps us invested in his character’s journey. But Dillane runs away with the show. He plays Vardon as a man who must stay restrained at all times, because to play the sport he loves requires him to spend time in the company of men he despises. The one time he loses his composure, while sharing breakfast with a boorish teammate, provides one of the film’s most satisfying moments.


Valiant (2005)

After watching American studios like Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks dominate the field of computer animation for a decade, the United Kingdom decided to give it a go in 2005 with twin efforts. The Magic Roundabout was a collaboration between the UK Film Council and Action Synthese, a French studio. Then later in the year, Vanguard Animation produced Valiant, which saw distribution in the USA via Walt Disney Pictures.

The result is a movie bearing the Disney logo but otherwise starkly different than any of Disney’s own productions.

Directed by Gary Chapman, Valiant is an old-fashioned war movie, only featuring pigeons as the main characters. Specifically, our heroes are a squadron of war pigeons serving in the Royal Homing Pigeon Service during World War II. The newest member of this crew is Valiant (Ewan McGregor), a rather diminutive pigeon who wants desperately to contribute to the war effort and become a hero.

Even the great Tim Curry fails to make much of an impact as the film’s villain

The story isn’t all that exciting or memorable. Valiant will of course get his chance to prove his worth, winning the day and the girl (he’s rather sweet on a dove played by Olivia Williams). He will also interact with a fairly large cast of characters played by a who’s who of English actors. John Cleese, Hugh Laurie, Tim Curry, Ricky Gervais, Jim Broadbent, and John Hurt are all on hand and do quite a good job delivering their trademark dry wit, heightened just enough to match the cartoon antics.

But that’s really the only attraction. I never grew to care about Valiant or his friends, even as they ventured into certain danger. The character designs don’t help, with none of the birds’ faces having much personality. Disney’s animators spent decades learning how important the smallest details are when it comes to drawing and animating characters, and the rushed (not to mention cheap) production of Valiant seems to have ignored most of these lessons.

It isn’t terrible, but I also can’t see this movie holding the attention of younger viewers.


Ice Princess (2005)

I took ice skating lessons as a child at Greenbrier Ice Rink in the city of Parma Heights. I didn’t stick with it for terribly long (I was more into basketball) but I remember that it was very hard, and I felt very proud when I was able to master new moves. So I was already primed to be sympathetic for Casey, the hero of Disney’s Ice Princess.

Played by Michelle Trachtenberg, Casey is a smart and serious high school physics student who must complete a research project in pursuit of a Harvard scholarship. She decides to apply the principles of physics to her childhood hobby of figure skating to see if she can improve her form.

Never one to skimp on the details, Casey goes to the school’s skating coach Tina (Kim Cattrall) and requests formal lessons. Her physics lessons pay off and before long, she is ready to skate competitively. She also discovers that her love for the sport is growing and growing.

The relationship between Casey (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Tina (Kim Cattrall) provides the movie’s emotional core

The movie’s major conflicts come from two sources. One was expected, as Casey’s mother (Joan Cusack) disapproves of girlish distractions like figure skating and wants her to stay focused on her future at Harvard. The other involves the central trio of Casey, coach Tina, and Tina’s daughter Gennifer (Hayden Panettiere). Gennifer has been groomed her whole life to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who also once skated competitively.

The conflict involving these three characters comes from a place I didn’t expect, and it benefits tremendously from Cattrall’s performance. Her character is surprisingly nuanced and complex, and I found myself invested in the relationship between her and Casey.

I enjoyed that this movie didn’t go the formulaic route. At multiple points in the story, I was confident I knew what would happen next after seeing countless sports movies. And multiple times, the characters surprised me by behaving true to themselves rather than sticking to clichés.

It all ends of course with the big figure skating tournament, where the movie briefly bows to convention by including several of the moments we expect from every sports flick. But the director Tim Fywell had done such a good job of making me care about these characters that even those moments worked for me.