Cinematic Releases: Leap! (2017) - Reviewed

The problem with a film like Leap! (its title in the U.S.; elsewhere it is simply titled Ballerina) is that it has the sensibilities of a European animated film, but unwisely bowdlerizes itself for its American audiences. It has the potential to tell a genuinely compelling story, but falls unfortunately flat in many ways. Stylistically and thematically, its design, and the animation, do have their charms – but, like a lot of CG-animated, non-Pixar, non-DreamWorks features, it tries too hard to be everything it’s not, and the result is a jumble of esthetic anachronism and questionable life lessons for its younger viewers.

The U.S. release stars Elle Fanning as the orphan Félicie, a spunky, freckled redhead (because what animated orphans aren’t spunky and redheaded) whose dream since infancy has been to attend the Paris Opera Ballet School and become a prima ballerina. She and her best friend, Victor (voiced by Nat Wolff for the U.S. release), an aspiring inventor, escape their orphanage and seek their fortunes in the streets of Paris. When they are separated, they make a bet as to whose dream will come true first. Félicie meets Odette (voiced by Carly Rae Jepsen), a woman who cleans for the wealthy Madame Le Haut (voiced by Kate McKinnon for the U.S. release), and begins helping her with her work in exchange for shelter in the servants’ quarters. When the haughty daughter of Odette’s superior viciously breaks the music box that Félicie keeps in remembrance of her mother, the orphan girl steals her identity and begins training under Odette to learn the grace and strength of ballet dancing so that she may be accepted by the master Mérante (Terrence Scammell)’s audition for the role of Clara in the Nutcracker Suite.

The problem is, as a character, Félicie is undisciplined and lacks the kind of experience necessary to be a truly accomplished young ballerina, and yet the film seems to push for her to succeed simply because she’s spirited and willful, positing that passion alone can create talent out of thin air. Even raw talent must be honed and nurtured with practice, and though Félicie certainly has drive and desire, she blows off her mentor to meet up with a ridiculous Russian stereotype of a ballet prodigy, whose existence in the film only seems to be to shoehorn in a subplot about Victor’s burgeoning romantic feelings for her and create unnecessary conflict between them. The rivalry between Félicie and rich, arrogant Camille Le Haut (Maddie Ziegler) – and the outright villainy of Camille’s mother – is based around flimsy motive, and poorly defined characterizations.

The dialogue for the English release is very choppy, and as a result much of the voice acting suffers. Characters are either overblown caricatures, with exaggerated delivery, or they’re completely wooden. There doesn’t seem to be any happy medium for them, and the film’s script ignores a lot of background information that would really have given more depth to most of the main characters. Odette, for example, likely has an intriguing backstory – but we’re treated to very little of it, in favor of focusing on the quiet influences she has upon Félicie, whose own backstory doesn’t get the kind of attention it should, even though it seems crucial to her development as a protagonist.

Leap! is ostensibly set in the 1880s, but it doesn’t commit to its time period, except to provide the half-finished Eiffel Tower and beginnings of the Statue of Liberty as props for the characters to use when daring escape scaffolding is needed; really, the story could have taken place during almost any era and isn’t improved by its passing mentions of Gustave Eiffel himself, whom we hear about but never see, although he has supposedly hired young Victor on as a sort of apprentice inventor. Indeed, for all of his cartoony, goofy antics and eccentric characterization, Victor might have made a better focus for a film so insistent upon the virtues of passion and dedication in achieving a dream.

For all its faults, however, Leap! does contain some truly beautiful animation, and there are several sweeping shots of both the French countryside and of 1880s Paris. The jewel of its character animation lies in the dancing; while the dialogue, motives, and acting may be ineffective, there are scenes of genuine joy that allow these characters to soar within the confines of their confusing, cacophonous world. For very young viewers, who will not be as critical of character arcs or care about accuracy, it serves well enough as a feel-good movie with good – not great – animation and a passable story. It may leap before it looks, but it lands, triumphantly enough, on its feet and tries its best to pick itself up from its stumbles.

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Dana Culling