(This review is dedicated to my cat Fyarl, who never failed to show my family and me he loved us. Your health problems are no more; rest easy, kittyboy.)
The biggest problem with Leap! (the revised version of last year’s European release Ballerina) is it tries a little too hard for my liking. At times, I thought I was watching another film from the folks who brought us Thunder and the House of Magic and The Wild Life – animated children’s films which went so heavy on the lessons they wanted to impart and forgot to have any fun.
However, how can anyone knock Leap! for trying too hard when trying too hard is its major theme? It’s a movie which seems hammy and cloying at first, but its sweetness breaks through its eager trappings and gets a little on you. To be sure, this is a crowd-pleaser through and through, with little in the way of negative consequences for its identity-stealing hero Felicie (Elle Fanning) as she dreams her way to Paris Opera Ballet in the 1880s.
Y’see, she’s a dancer. Well, she’s an orphan in 1880s France without any formal training, but she! has! heart! And spunk! And spirit! All the things which anyone needs to succeed in these types of films, circumstances be damned. She’s obviously destined for more than her orphanage-bound life; as it’s made clear in the beginning of the film, she can move well and she could be a good dancer (given a few lessons). Fanning’s voice may not quite match the whimsy and esprit of the narration, but it’s more than enough to get us where we’re going.
If you venture a guess as to how this movie plays out, you’ll probably find you’re absolutely right by the time the closing title appears. An escape to Paris with her best friend Victor (Nat Wolff) gives both of them the opportunity to follow their desired paths – hers as a dancer, his as an inventor. Shucks, wouldn’t you know it, their dreams just kinda fall into their lap. Victor starts an apprenticeship under Gustave Eiffel (whose eponymous tower is still being built), and Felicie intercepts an admission letter from the school at the Paris Opera Ballet meant for spoiled brat Camille (Maddie Ziegler).
Normally, these films with outrageous fortunes ring a tad false, and Leap! is no different. Two orphans somehow luck into the chances of their lifetimes just by being around the right people, not spending one day starving on the street or in other adverse circumstances? Yeah, it’s far-fetched, but wouldn’t you like to see if Felicie has the stuff? You know you wanna. So stay in your seat, ‘cause even with this film’s contrived clichés, there is a backbone of warmth and gutsiness which sometimes evades even the higher-profile animated films.
There’s some kind of thrown-in subplot about another dancer making romantic overtures for Felicie, causing a fit of jealousy with Victor, but it’s easily forgotten as we see her progression as a dance student. Aided by Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), the school’s janitor, we see Felicie’s innate talent honed performance-sharp, even after the school’s ballet master Mérante (Terrence Scammell) designates her the failure of the class. Jepsen imparts an honest, giving voice to Odette, making her the world-weary, jaded, yet deceivingly optimistic mother figure Felicie desperately needs. In a film where all the voice actors seem to overdo it just a bit (or are woefully miscast for their roles), Jepsen plays it just right as the film’s conscience and soul.
When the inevitable confrontation between Camille and Felicie happens, it’s dealt with sensibly and artistically, with Mérante seeing the promise of greatness in Felicie versus the artificial roteness in Camille. It’s a move which seldom happens outside of early Adam Sandler movies, yet it doesn’t feel awkwardly canned in Leap! due to its feel-good nature. Keeping with the Sandler comparisons, don’t be surprised if you find yourself thinking about how his movies tend to resolve themselves once the final third comes knocking at the door.
For all of this, the film’s unconstrained joie de vivre more than makes up for its various stock faux pas, especially its rather outrageous climax. Leap! genuinely doesn’t have a mean bone in its body, being a footloose fantasy and a solid underdog film. A wise doctor once said, “Don’t dream it – be it,” and no matter how many times Leap! sinks into the tried-and-true, it’s a joy to watch Felicie “be it.” Equal parts Fame, the USA Network’s hit show “Suits,” and a little dash of Cinderella, Leap! works with a vitality which only stems from its raw heart.