By Bob Garver
“Leap!” is an animated kids’ movie that teaches the lesson that if you work hard and practice every day for years… you’re a sucker. Just be a natural and cut to the front of the line. Elle Fanning voices Félicie, an aspiring ballerina in 19th-century France. She and her inventor best friend Victor (Nat Wolff) escape their rural orphanage and its surly supervisor (Mel Brooks) and run off to Paris so they can follow their dreams. Victor bumbles through an offscreen subplot where he becomes an apprentice to Gustave Eiffel, but the movie mostly focuses on Félicie, and it’s worse off for it.
Félicie is taken in by Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), a former dance prodigy whose career was cut short due to injury. Odette now holds down two jobs as a cleaning woman, one for the Paris Ballet Academy and the other for Madame Le Hout (Kate McKinnon). Le Hout’s daughter Camille (Maddie Ziegler, best known for voicelessly dancing in Sia’s music videos, here proving less adept at dancelessly voicing) has been invited to audition for a role in “The Nutcracker” for the Academy even though she’s not a student. The arrogant Camille damages Félicie’s prized music box and Félicie steals her invitation. Suddenly the plucky orphan is in contention for the role of a lifetime. Two problems: 1) The director (Terrence Scammell) is prejudiced against Félicie because she’s not a student and vows to cut her from the multi-day audition the first chance he gets, and 2) she’s a terrible dancer. She had a few nice moves while goofing around the orphanage, but she’s in no way prepared for actual ballet.
Félicie overcomes these obstacles through hard work. And by “hard work,” I mean Odette trains her a few hours each day with homespun methods and somehow she’s able to avoid elimination. Keep in mind, she’s up against students from the Academy. How poorly are they preparing their dancers if even their own employees can’t bring themselves to cut someone with so little training? The other dancers must see Félicie as something of a Mozart to their Salieri, someone who achieves greatness with almost no effort while their own painstaking efforts go unappreciated because they lead to underwhelming results.
This movie is undone by the complete unlikeability of every character except Odette. Victor is the embodiment of every awkward teenage boy stereotype. The orphanage supervisor is a one-joke troll until a change of heart from out of nowhere. The ballet director seemingly lives to insult teenage girls. Camille and her mother have to be especially obnoxious to make Félicie look good by comparison (at least McKinnon puts her back into being heinous). And of course there’s Félicie herself, who doesn’t deserve any of the success she finds. She hasn’t gone through the proper channels, she doesn’t have a strong work ethic, she doesn’t bring anything different to the Academy, and she’s not even particularly nice. She throws away not one but two friends to go on a date with a good-looking boy with a horrible personality. On top of all that, something is very wrong with the animation in this movie. The backgrounds and buildings are actually quite nice, but the movements are unnatural and the characters’ faces often don’t match up with the dialogue.
On my way out of the theater for “Leap!” I saw a little girl doing amateur ballet moves because the movie had inspired her. For a second I thought maybe I was being too grouchy about the film. After all, if she could find something of value in this movie, who was I to say it was bad? But then I realized that the reason she liked dancing so much was that the movie had made it look easy. Any skill looks enticing if it’s made to look like it can be mastered in a week. If Félicie had gone through a real struggle and still come out with her passion for dance intact, then that little girl’s reaction might have meant something.
“Leap!” is rated PG for some impolite humor, and action. Its running time is 86 minutes.
Contact Bob Garver at [email protected].