It's not today's standard animated fare, so it's got that going for it. French-made, Paris-based Leap! takes a Ratatouille-like road on its quest to turn a tweenage orphan into a ballerina. It might have been great if not for our creeping disbelief and some serious at-what-cost questions regarding dream pursuit. The film's in English but something's been lost in translation. 2.5 out of 5.
Felicie (Elle Fanning) and Victor (Nat Wolff) are best friends who dream of being a ballerina and an inventor, respectively. They seem to have the talent for the jobs, too. Only problem is, they're stuck in a Brittany coast orphanage in late-19th-century France. While not exactly Dickensian in its dreariness, this orphanage is nonetheless a place where dreams go to die ("Dreams are not reality; life is brutal," explains Mother Superior (Kate McKinnon)). So their only choice is to escape to Paris, where despite getting separated they each fall into lodging and work, paltry though it is. After becoming the target of a spoiled rich girl's taunts, Felicie sees her chance to gain entry to a prestigious ballet school and takes it. Will the opportunity prove golden or ill-begotten? Qui vivra verra!
According to my daughter, who turns 12 this week, the best things about Leap! are "dancing" and "Paris." Hard to disagree. Even the animation is richest during the scenes where ballet or the City of Light are being featured, even if, as some reviews have said, Dance deserves a better movie than Leap!.
Felicie is a likable character who is easy to pull for, even if we have a hard time understanding how she can fake her way through ballet as a beginner or get away with the worst kind of thievery. But it's Carly Rae Jepsen who seems to have best captured the nuance of her character, hobbled cleaning lady Odette (was she once something more?).
Maddie Ziegler's Camille and her scheming mother might be fished straight out of the Villain Archetype Barrel, but Camille especially has some depth and nuance to her, and kids will enjoy her dynamic arc. Without giving too much away, I also felt it generally worked that Felicie ultimately suffers some major setbacks before her dreams-come-true finale.
When foreign animated films are redubbed in American English, something often goes sideways (looking at you, The Wild Life). There are awkward phrasings and transitions, and conversations don't always flow naturally. Leap! suffers in this way, but it's also tonally inconsistent: life is hard, dreams take work, the film preaches, but... then it shows us otherwise. A persistent memento in the form of a music box belonging to Felicie is used in multiple metaphoric ways, but it can't stand for everything. It works best in recurring images where Felicie dreams it's falling, but the reality may be something far less scary.
While thinking of how Leap! (European title: Ballerina) might play better in the culture where it originated, I was, in fact, reminded of several familiar proverbs which would no doubt suit the themes of Leap! in ways noticeable to a French audience. Take "Qui court deux lievres a la fois, n'en prend aucun,” for instance. Translated, “Who runs after two hares at the same time, catches none,” this is a wonderful illustration of Felicie's distractions the night before having the chance to earn all she's ever wanted. Similarly, "Petit a petit, l’oiseau fait son nid" ("little by little, the bird builds its nest") speaks to the process and belief Victor takes with his inventions, particularly since primary among them are a set of functioning wings. Still, there's something annoying about Victor, and his role in the climax is telegraphed from the outset.
According to Wikipedia, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in New York in October 1886, while construction on the Eiffel Tower in Paris didn't begin until January 1887. But both well-known monoliths play a part in the plot here. Suffice to say Leap! takes place in the late 1880s when the Eiffel Tower is about a third complete, and the Statue of Liberty hasn't yet been gifted to the United States... even though such a date apparently never existed.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
Leap!'s biggest conundrum may be found here: Is it ever acceptable to steal another's identity and opportunity for any reason? What if the victim is a really rude jerk who only had her opportunity because her mom paid for it, and the perpetrator is a down-on-her-luck orphan chasing an otherwise-impossible dream, does that make it any better? What if the perp had already been accused of being a thief, but convinced us stealing wasn't part of her make-up? What if the consequences for such actions were... negligible, because after all, the thief displayed plucky nerve and worked really, really hard with her stolen identity? There are incredible moments of grace here, as in other French tales (Les Miz), but then, there must be, lest this movie end in a gutter, a prison, or back in the orphanage. And of course we also question what the downtrodden and impoverished are supposed to do just to acquire access most of us take for granted. But Leap! is robbed of deeper character connection when Felicie and Odette both behave in ways that are ethically questionable.
Viewers may also wonder whether the movie is suggesting - for better or worse - that young relationships, crushes and even dates are demons to be slayed on one's dream quest rather than a part of the journey itself.
To be sure, there are valuable themes and concepts here as well: Blend your pain, sorrow, anger and joy to find and develop your passion; it is one thing to know your dream and begin to pursue it, but to truly achieve it you will eventually have to answer the question of why you do it; faith - and leaps thereof - are an essential part of dream pursuit; when your hopes are dashed and you find yourself back at the beginning, you can either allow your spirit to be broken, or you can get back at it, perhaps trusting new allies whom you never really noticed before. And of course, the wonderful gift of adoption is on full display.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: PG for some impolite humor and action
- Language/Profanity: "Sucks," "barf" and one child repeatedly referring to another as a "little rat" are as rough as it gets here; actually, an adult telling a child, "I hate children, especially orphans" is tougher on the ears, though the speaker probably didn't mean it.
- Sexuality/Nudity: Nothing at all revealing, though Victor does stuff a chicken under a nun's habit to disguise himself as a woman (he thus has 'chicken breasts,' get it?); some innocent kisses. Feelings of friendship turn more romantic in young teens. Girls fawn embarrasingly over a stuck-up male dancer, even sniffing his sweat rag. Flatulence plays its required part in two scenes, one of which involves a still-frame of someone bending over to pass gas as it is lit on fire.
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: A flightless chicken (is there any other kind?) is thrown from the roof of the orphanage. We don't see the result other than a character exclaiming, "Oh no...." A couple characters can be frightening to look at, and during the film's climax, one acts threateningly, hitting one child on the head with a wrench and trying to push another to injury or death atop a high precipice. Victor is a klutz but his bumblings result in things that would only hurt in real life, not in cartoons. Two boys fight - pathetically - over a girl.
Drugs/Alcohol: A couple scenes take place in taverns, where adults are drinking and spilling drinks; in one, Felicie entertains the crowd by dancing on a table (that sounds creepy but it's not).
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: I think Leap!'s better, and more original, with more talking points, than much of the non-Pixar animation being offered today. So if you're likewise tired of taking your kids to The Emoji Movie and Nut Job 2, consider giving Leap! a try. Also for dreamers, dancers, and fans of Anton Ego's monologue from Ratatouille.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: We don't want to generalize, but my 14-year-old son confirms the opinion: unless your kids take/watch dance, it's hard to imagine them enjoying this one. The very young may find themselves bored, or even confused, though some of Victor's pratfalls may keep them engaged.
Leap!, directed by Éric Summer and Éric Warin, opens in US theaters August 25, 2017 (released in France and the UK December 2016 under the title Ballerina). It runs 89 minutes and stars Elle Fanning, Nat Wolff, Maddie Ziegler, Carly Rae Jepsen, Mel Brooks and Kate McKinnon. Watch the trailer for Leap! here.
Shawn McEvoy is the Managing Editor for Crosswalk.com and the co-host of ChristianMovieReviews.com & CrosswalkMovies.com's Video Movie Reviews.
Publication date: August 24, 2017
Image courtesy: ©Weinstein