Spunky ballerina tale takes wing but has trouble with landing
Starring the voices of Elle Fanning, Nat Wolff, Carly Rae Jepsen & Kate McKinnon
Directed by Eric Summer & Éric Warin
Go ahead, jump!
That was the advice of Van Halen in the 1980s. And it’s the advice of this spirited animated yarn about a spunky orphan girl who takes a leap of faith to follow her dream of becoming a ballerina.
Felicie (voiced by Elle Fanning) lives in rural Brittany, France, in the early 1880s. She escapes from the secluded orphanage with her best friend, Victor (Nat Wolff), headed for the City of Lights, nearly 400 kilometers away, and the Ballet de Paris.
Against a gorgeous backdrop of a partially constructed Eiffel Tower and other luminous Paris sights, Felicie manages to weasel her way into auditions for the Ballet’s big production of The Nutcracker. She’s mentored by a former star dancer, Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), who’s now a despondent cleaning lady.
But another young dancer, the snooty rich-girl Camille (Maddie Ziegler), also has her eyes on a coveted ballerina spot. And her ice-cold, Cruella de Ville-ish dance mom (Kate McKinnon) will do whatever it takes to ensure she gets it.
Meanwhile, Victor has found a job apprenticing in the shop of an eccentric inventor who’s working on both the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. (The movie isn’t much of a stickler for historical accuracy.) He’s making “leap” plans of his own, crafting a set of mechanical wings that will factor into the movie’s final moments, not to mention its overall theme of positivity, pluck and determination.
Felice recalls the long-ago words of her mother: “If you don’t leap, you’ll never know what it’s like to fly.”
Young tween girls, in particular, will probably love Leap!, especially those who might—like Felice—pine for tutus, tights and pointe work. The ballet sequences, animated from actual movements of star dancers from the Paris Opera, are lovely, graceful and majestic, even when they push well beyond the boundaries of real-life physics and gravity.
This French-Canadian production, originally called Ballerina and released last year in France and the United Kingdom, was retitled for its American release, and retooled. Saturday Night Live’s McKinnon and comedy icon Mel Brooks were added to the vocal cast, and Wolff replaced Dane DeHaan, the original voice of Victor.
The filmmakers also must have felt the movie’s Old World setting needed a little freshening up, so they added some contemporary touches. They don’t quite fit, like pieces of American bubble gum tossed onto platters of French pastry. Boppin’ pop songs from Jepsen, Sia and Demi Levato bump abruptly up against Swan Lake and Sugar Plum Fairies. Much of the humor is sitcom 101. There are fart jokes, a barf joke, a pee joke and a nutcracker gag that doesn’t have anything to do with Tchaikovsky’s ballet.
Characters speak with a movie lingo that mixes American teen slang, fake French English and quasi-Euro-whatever, and their animated designs often make them look several years “older” than the tender ages they’re supposed to be.
Felice is (supposedly) only 11, which makes a scene where she dances on the tables of a Paris tavern, Coyote Ugly style, all the more unsettling—especially when the inebriated, leering men in the place excitedly cheer her on. “Anybody check her ID at the door?” someone shouts. Indeed.
Did tween ballerinas in Paris in the early 1880s really wear hip-hugger shorty shorts, leggings, little vests and booties? Did they train Karate Kid style? Or have epic snippy dance-offs that begin on the stage, continue through the seats of the theater and end up in the lobby—or high in the air of the lobby?
This sweet-natured, well-intentioned movie shows that there are other players in the animation field beyond Pixar and Disney, doing commendable work with a fraction of those company’s blockbuster budgets. Leap! boldly takes the plunge, even if it doesn’t quite nail the landing. But if you’ve got a little one who wants to someday be the swan in Swan Lake, well, as Van Halen says, you might as well jump.
In theaters Aug. 25, 2017