There’s something about a film focusing on a young, aspiring ballerina in the late 1800s that makes it easy to understand why this animated effort didn’t have the marketing push normally associated with the ventures that come out of the animation behemoths. Leap! is a movie focusing on the struggle of dreams, highlighted by picturesque (and/or dark) scenes of gaslit Paris with the incomplete Eiffel Tower in the background. There aren’t a lot of toys to sell here.
It makes you wish for a different world, like that recent commercial that imagines the day when we celebrate scientists and have their pictures on trading cards.
Felicie (Elle Fanning) is an orphan who lives out her days in a dreary orphanage with her best friend, Victor (Dane DeHaan). She dances the days away while plotting with Victor to escape. She dreams of joining a ballet company in Paris, but has no real idea what she would actually do if she suddenly found herself alone in a sprawling city. Nevertheless, the pair escape and hardly have a chance to get their bearings when they are separated. Now Felicie has to figure out something to do with herself, or at least find somewhere to sleep. Like all children of story with guardian angels, Felicie wanders to the dance company and is taken in after hounding a washerwoman, Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), she meets there.
Circumstances conspire to provide Felicie a way to become a student at the ballet, but only by pretending to be someone else, and someone that the school’s famous choreographer, Mérante (Terrence Scammel) isn’t actually interested in teaching. The deck is thoroughly stacked against her, and as if this all weren’t difficult enough to navigate, she has to do it while buried inside the emotional, angst-fueled body of a tween, which doesn’t always lead to the best decision-making.
Leap! follows along through a melding of coming-of-age motifs, with a bit of Karate Kid here and a splash of “falling for dreamy jerk” there, but it rarely strays long from Felicie’s effort and attitude. She may need a teacher, and Odette’s Miyagi-esque bell-touching and wheel-spinning serve nicely, but Felicie is almost unique in her self-determination and the film is likewise on unusual ground with its own determination to portray her sense of resilience and responsibility. She may throw something of a fit when Odette challenges her autonomy, but she never places blame for her circumstances, even when she has a fair brat, Camille (Maddie Ziegler), to set her sights on. If she isn’t good enough, or the task at hand seems (and is) nigh impossible, she doesn’t bemoan her fate, curse the unfair world, or point fingers. She works harder.
Don’t let this make you think that we are delving into a realm of animation that is bizarrely serious in its presentation. The film is often silly, filled with laughs, and has a bit of action. Which is to say that younger audiences won’t quite know what’s hitting them, they’ll just have a good time. The messages will sink in later.
What’s best about the film is its ability to make choices, but that, unfortunately, leads to some of its problems as well. Where other versions of the story might have had our orphanage a more horrible place, making Felicie’s motivations easier, Leap! instead has us simply in an orphanage at all, shifting her motivation to an overwhelming need to realize herself, as opposed to a need to truly escape anything. Similarly, while you are almost guaranteed to expect Felicie and Victor to live happily ever after, especially since he is clearly infatuated with her, the movie ultimately sidesteps the relationship altogether. Felicie is, after some trips down poor paths, only after discovering Felicie-ness here, not any requisite connections to anyone or anything else.
Where this goes slightly wrong is in the inclusion of elements that don’t quite fit and/or don’t ultimately lead to anything and are thus wasted time. Some moments in the film will feel off, but those are mostly a result of the cultural differences in storytelling inherent in this Canadian and French co-production. Those aren’t problematic, though you may find you need a more worldly sense of humor, but where things lose the flow of the film or seem like outright mistakes in delivering the characters, they become true flaws. For example, the handsome, “bad choice,” Rudolph quickly becomes a non-character excuse for things to happen, as opposed to anyone who is an actually entity, and the evil Regine (Kate McKinnon) is far to one side of mustache-twirly.
That leads to an interesting question, and one not often asked of animated films. Can a wonderfully fun, inspiring film with real flaws that have to be accounted for still become a magical moment in time that will likely be a lifelong treasured favorite for many? Yes. Yes, it can.