Mocapped performances by members of the Paris Ballet are taken to poetic flights of fancy in CG-animated feature from Gaumont.
Moms, if you have a budding ballerina under your roof who’d savor a movie celebrating the joy and challenges of life lived on tiptoes, Leap! is the film for both of you. (Black Swan, this ain’t.)
Known as Ballerina in territories outside the U.S., Leap! follows young orphans Félicie (Elle Fanning) and Victor (Nickelodeon veteran Nat Wolff) as they escape their dreary orphanage and head for Paris where she can pursue her dream: Félicie, to quote Gene Kelly, has just “gotta dance!” When one character tells her “dreams aren’t reality,” a second encourages her with “we should never give up on our dreams” (a sentiment that’s repeated several times throughout the film).
Would-be inventor Victor fades into the background, lucking into a low-level job on the half-finished Eiffel Tower; meanwhile Félicie almost literally stumbles into a chance to join the Paris Opera Ballet, courtesy of a purloined invitation meant for Camille, the snooty daughter of Rgine, the ultimate stage mother and the film’s numero uno heavy. (As a counterpoint, a succession of what seem like mean or brittle authority figures all reveal their soft sides as the film progresses.)
Of course you can’t have a ballet film without a healthy dose of the stuff, supplied by the mocapped performances by members of the Paris Ballet and taken to poetic flights of fancy possible only in animation with gravity-defying slow-motion leaps through space.
In fact, there’s quite a bit of surprisingly inventive animation in Leap!, from the conversation between Félicie and the former ballerina Odette, one of her many mentors, as they scrub an endless flight of stairs: in a continuous shot the camera ascends the staircase, revealing the pair at different points along the way engaged in a continuous conversation. At another point Victor is less than truthfully recounting his exploits as revealed via a moving camera examining a series of frozen-in-space moments. (While Leap! isn’t the first animated feature to indulge in a flatulence gag, it is the first to visually depict methane’s flammable properties.) Its stylized views of 19th century Paris ring true, as a film produced from the French studio Gaumont should.
Thanks to Odette’s exacting tutelage (you try jumping into a puddle without making a splash) Félicie manages to survive the skeptical eye of a choreographer -- who reveals his own benevolent nature when he discovers her joyfully dancing at a working-class tavern. (It’s a moment reminiscent of Kate Winslet whooping it up with the steerage-class folk in Cameron’s Titanic.) Then, inevitably, Camille arrives at the school to expose Félicie’s deception and claim her rightful spot… (Félicie must be the “sorriest” heroine in animated history; one could create a drinking game built around every time she offers an apology or says she’s sorry for a misstep.)
Rudi, a young mini-Baryshnikov is on hand to provide Félicie with a bit of romantic distraction, including a hazardous rooftop dance echoing her and Victor’s earlier in the film. Near film’s end Camille and Félicie engage in a do-or-die dance-off throughout the opera house, even more spirited than Gru and Balthazar Bratt’s in Despicable Me 3. (Guess who wins…and who apologizes for her earlier in the film world-class bitchiness.)
Like no small number of other recent films, Leap! contains at least one more climactic scene than necessary, although it does give Victor a chance to swoop in on a pair of wings evidently borrowed from Captain America’s pal Sam (The Falcon) Wilson and save the day, enabling Félicie to don Odette’s red ballet shoes and perform a film-ending grand jete.
What’s next? Perhaps a sequel focusing on Victor, a film for budding inventors, boys and girls alike, following his own quest for fulfillment; they could call it Invent!