Leap! is the type of film you want to pull for as the underdog animated movie about the underdog archetype. It may not have the most detailed of character designs, the most decadent of lighting, or the most stylish of animated sets, but it delivers on the animated movements of ballet—which is probably the most important thing you’d want to get right in an animated film about ballerinas. The dance moves feel true and special, which is why it’s too bad that such animation was in service of a story that’s routinely bland whenever someone isn’t in a tutu.
Set in the 1880s, Leap! stars chipper orphan Félicie (voiced by Elle Fanning), who has big dreams of becoming a ballerina in Paris. With the help of her inventor pal, Victor (Dane DeHaan), she is able to escape the orphanage where she lives and seek out her destiny in the city of lights. There, she goes through the usual motions of a sports drama: she sneaks into a rehearsal for a Nutcracker ballet but isn’t the least bit prepared for being a skilled ballet dancer; to increase her skill, she works with former ballet dancer Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), who hobbles around with a cane giving her Karate Kid–style exercises in being a ballerina. If you can land in a puddle without a splash, you can dance the ballet!
Then there’s the instructor Mérante (Terrence Scammell), a shrewd man who is very strict with his dancers and won’t stand for anything less than perfection from the young girls who wish to be in the ballet. If Félicie can be picked, she will get to share the stage with the beautiful blond Rudi, a boy she fancies (but not for long once she realizes how brainless he is). She must also contend with snobby rival dancer Camille (Maddie Ziegler) and her evil mother, Régine (Julie Khaner), who forcefully pushed her daughter into dance. Camille has had the most expert of training with the fanciest of equipment that rich brats can buy—will Félicie be able to best her? Will Victor be able to finally win Félicie’s heart? Will there be any tension with such a predictable route?
I really wanted to root for this film as the little animated film that could. The modest $30 million budget certainly shows, with less expressive characters and less impressive lighting than a bigger-budgeted Pixar or Dreamworks production, but the filmmakers and animators still do their best with what little they have. I could see some character and beauty trying to squeeze out of the restraints of such limited animation. Nuggets of brilliance can be seen in Félicie’s bucktoothed dance partner and the evening shots of the theater lobby, which do their best to convey the massive scale.
Where the animation works best, as I’ve mentioned already, is in the ballet sequences. The animators studied Paris Opera ballet dancers Aurélie Dupont and Jérémie Bélingard to nail the choreography, and they do an exceptional job at nailing down precise movements and grace. The first time Félicie witnesses a ballerina on stage, I shared her awe for what looked like a real ballet routine rather than an animated character pretending to do ballet. The animators have these movements down so well that they’re also able to animate Félicie trying the moves and failing many times with a similar amount of grace. The filmmakers certainly weren’t slacking off in this department.
They did not, however, seem to put much effort into the rest of the story. Several characters are kicked to the side because their plots are not that interesting, as evident by the few times they intersect with Félicie’s story. Victor is supposed to be the love interest, but he spends so much time engrossed in his engineering work that it’s surprising he doesn’t drift further from Félicie. Odette has a crush on Mérante, but this is never fully elaborated enough to be romantic. Régine’s fury never seems to rise until the third act, when she goes from competitive aristocrat to a bloodthirsty witch without much evolution. (Imagine my confusion and shock to find that the climax of the film involves this dress-wearing socialite chasing Félicie up the Statue of Liberty with a sledgehammer.)
It becomes painfully obvious at times that this was a foreign production with extra lines of dialogue dubbed in where they didn’t need to be. I wouldn’t mind this aspect if there were actually something funny to add, but that’s just not the case here. The most prominent of ad libbers for this film is Mel Brooks as the muscle of the orphanage, and there’s a long sequence in which he chases after Félicie and Victor on a motorcycle. This scene should be fun without dialogue, but Brooks continues to speak throughout it without anything funny to say about what’s going on in the animation. If your characters must talk and talk and talk, they better have something interesting to say—if they don’t, it feels as though the English directors were just filling space, fearing any dialogue-free scene would be boring and confusing for American kids.
Leap! has a chipper spirit to please, but it continuously trips and stumbles with some bad choices. The humor is all over the place, running the gamut of everything from out-of-time bits (Félicie accidentally turns into a record-scratching DJ) to out-of-era lines (“It’s hammer time!”) to the laziest of fart jokes. The characters are likable enough, but they’re so locked down to their archetype tracks that they can never break out from their expected parts in the plot. And if you have such an amazing sequence as Félicie and Camille dueling with ballet moves that spill out of the theater, why would you follow that up with an action scene on the Statue of Liberty? Credit should, again, be given to the animators for doing the best with what they had to work with, but the writers need to go back to the drawing board and find a better means of conceiving a story for an animated film. Perhaps a Karate Kid–style challenge of their own: write a script without the use of an action sequence or a fart joke.