An orphaned French country girl pursues her ballet dreams in an animated feature starring Elle Fanning, Nat Wolff, Kate McKinnon and Carly Rae Jepsen.
With a few well-executed pirouettes and a few clunky ones, Leap! puts a contemporary follow-your-dreams spin (i.e., choose a career early, kiddos!) on a basic fairy-tale template. But though the mix of poppy power anthems and Tchaikovsky isn’t seamless and the familiar plot points are less than transporting, there’s a beating heart to this tween story to match its exuberant dance sequences. Filling a family-film void in the late-summer market, it will delight aspiring terpsichoreans without boring their grown-ups.
The France-Canada production, made on a relatively low budget by Hollywood animation standards, is a predictable story propelled by expressive character design, spirited voice work and radiant backdrops of late-19th-century Paris. Released this past winter in a number of international markets under the title Ballerina, it has undergone a bit of recasting for stateside audiences, adding Nat Wolff, Kate McKinnon and Mel Brooks to its voice troupe.
In a cartoon version of a drone shot, directors Eric Summer and Eric Warin open the story by swooping over a storybook landscape that’s dominated not by a dazzling castle but a cheerless orphanage. There, in the countryside of Brittany, best friends Felicie (Elle Fanning), an 11-year-old with a driving passion to dance, and Victor (Wolff), an aspiring and indefatigable inventor, manage at last to escape, despite the walleyed vigilance of the institution’s overseer, Monsieur Luteau (Brooks).
They arrive in a City of Light where the Eiffel Tower is under construction, and Victor soon lands a job as a gofer in the atelier of Gustave Eiffel himself (unseen). Felicie, meanwhile, through persistence and a bit of subterfuge, finds herself vying for the role of Clara in the Paris Opera Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker.”
Amid all the lovely, evocative visuals — the grand interiors of the Opera, the streetlights reflected in rain-slick cobblestones — a blunt modern vibe infiltrates the fin de siècle atmosphere, in the form of belted pop tunes on the soundtrack, Felicie’s millennial garb, the usual assortment of grade-school scatology. Most conspicuously, the story of yearning gets boiled down to a reality-style elimination at the esteemed Opera Ballet School, where Felicie rises to the rigors of the legendary master Merante (Terrence Scammell). She scales the learning curve with fantasy-land velocity, though she will fumble and suffer the requisite setbacks on her way to triumphant self-realization.
Given real-girl pluck, humor and sincerity by Fanning, Felicie encounters friends as well as foes along her path. Among the former, notably, is the doleful Odette (voiced with especially affecting nuance by Carly Rae Jepsen), who works as a cleaner at the Opera and rather transparently harbors a heartbreaking backstory.
On the adversarial side are a monstrous stage mother and her bratty daughter: the haughty restaurateur Regine (Kate McKinnon, in a state of perpetual high dudgeon, with a touch of Cruella De Vil) and Camille (Maddie Ziegler). Doing triple duty, McKinnon also voices the smaller roles of the orphanage’s buzzkill mother superior and Felicie’s beloved maman, seen briefly in one of the girl’s dreams.
Falling somewhere between friend and foe is rising ballet star Rudolph (Tamir Kapelian), a Russian teen who’s comically self-impressed. His romantic interest in Felicie is one of several aspects of the story that make her seem older than 11; her fearless performance in a saloon is another, although the scene’s Celtic vitality is a nice reminder of her Breton roots.
The screenplay, credited to Carol Noble, Laurent Zeitoun and co-director Summer, pounds the “never give up” drum far too often, rather than letting Felicie and Victor’s scrappiness, hard work — and luck — speak for themselves. But the film’s less literal asides can be enchanting, including the dream-sequence snippets and the music box that Felicie cherishes like a talisman, with good reason.
The trefoil spiral that adorns the box is among the lovelier touches in the inspired visual design by art director Florent Masurel. Like the night clouds, twinkling fireflies and architectural details that enrich the setting, its poetry counterbalances the run-of-the-mill plot.
Above all, Felicie and Victor are likable rooting interests, and there’s real poignancy in the girl’s deepening bond with Odette. The dream-come-true ending may be a given, but along the way Summer and Warin have conjured exhilarating moments without a single talking animal or product placement posing as narrative.
Distributor: The Weinstein Co.
Production companies: Quad Productions, Main Journey, Caramel Films, L’Atelier Animation, Gaumont, M6 Films
Cast: Elle Fanning, Nat Wolff, Maddie Ziegler, Mel Brooks, Carly Rae Jepsen, Kate McKinnon, Terrence Scammell, Tamir Kapelian, Joe Sheridan, Elana Dunkelman, Shoshana Sperling, Ricardo Sanchez
Directors: Eric Summer, Eric Warin
Screenwriters: Carol Noble, Laurent Zeitoun, Eric Summer
Story by: Eric Summer, Laurent Zeitoun
Producers: Laurent Zeitoun, Yann Zenou, Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Andre Rouleau, Valerie d’Auteuil
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, David C. Glasser, Francois-Xavier Aubague
Director of photography: Jericca Cleland
Art director: Florent Masurel
Editor: Yvann Thibaudeau
Composer: Klaus Badelt
Choregraphy: Aurelie Dupont, Jeremie Belingard
Director of animation: Ted Ty
CG supervisor: Benoit Blouin
Casting: Bonnie Timmermann, Lucie Robitaille, Robyn Klein
Rated PG, 89 minutes