If you haven’t heard, last weekend theaters received the worst box office returns they’ve seen in 16 years. That means audiences haven’t been this disinterested in movies since 9/11. That’s saying something. Studios are blaming the Mayweather-McGregor fight and the expected late-summer slump, but it’s pretty obvious the real culprit here is a shortage of acceptable choices. With weak recent offerings such as The Hitman’s Bodyguard and Leap!, who could blame potential ticket buyers? Let’s hope better content reaches our cineplexes sooner rather than later.
Out of a slew of modestly-budgeted wet noodles to come to theaters this weekend, the best one to perform was the independent French/Canadian animated production Leap!, titled Ballerina outside the states. Ringing in at third place with a meager 4.8 million, Leap! is an adequately animated major debut from L’Atelier Animation, which is housed in Quebec. The film heavily borrows from Disney, and with hit-or-miss voice acting and tired gags, Leap! will fail to resonate with adults, and will function as little else than a babysitter for small children.
Leap! tells the supposedly inspirational story of Félicie Milliner’s (Elle Fanning) journey to become a ballerina. Félicie is an impoverished orphan living in the late 1800s in rural France, and teams up with her best friend Victor (Nat Wolff in the U.S., Dane DeHaan elsewhere) to finally execute a successful escape plan to flee their callous orphanage and chase their dreams in Paris. After getting separated, Félicie assumes the identity of a snooty young dancer, Camille (Maddie Ziegler) to get into ballet school, while Victor becomes an assistant to Gustave Eiffel.
Félicie sneaks her way into ballet school having no dancing experience at all. Her instructor (Terrence Scammell), looking to cast the lead for his ballet, The Nutcracker, cuts a student at the end of every class. In attempts to compete with girls that have been training for years, Félicie convinces a somber cleaning girl named Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen) to tutor her. Leap! as a whole is markedly derivative. The film copies beats from well-worn family fare (needy orphans, cruel guardians), and blatantly imitates the premise of The Karate Kid, applying it here to ballet.
Though Elle Fanning has proven herself a competent young actress in dramatic content, she registers as bland in voice alone, and is not a strong choice to lead an animated film. Nat Wolff is amusing, and the fumbling Victor is one of the better-realized characters in Leap! Though, I regret not being able to see how Dane DeHaan handled the role. As such a common presence in American film, it is odd he was replaced in the U.S. release. He is certainly not who I would picture as the first choice for Victor, yet a chance to see the result would be intriguing.
As for the other characters, the actors seem to be cast on name recognition alone, as they seem ill-suited for the characters they portray. Mel Brooks is decent as orphanage headmaster Luteau, though he spends the majority of the film as a harsh disciplinarian before the character inexplicably morphs into being friendly and childlike. Similarly, Carly Rae Jepsen hardly seems appropriate as Félicie’s secret trainer Odette, as her character remains excessively rude much of the time, before her predictable sappy backstory as a former dancing protégé finally emerges.
When it comes to the animation, it’s a formidable debut from a small-time studio, but it is lackluster in comparison to what modern audiences are accustomed to. Technically, it’s superb, as the detail and texture is up to par. Kinetically, it’s a mixed bag, as the animators nail the swooping elegance of ballet, but some of the characters’ motions appear awkward in comedic situations. Stylistically, it’s a wash. Leap! stimulates the eye with respectable attention to detail, but the fashion and scenery of Paris is represented by an ugly color palette of beige and brown.
Overall, Leap! is nothing you haven’t seen before. The movie desperately assembles standard family-friendly tropes and clichés to charm its audience, and its storytelling is clumsy, with characters that bound between various roles and motivations with insufficient explanation. Though the visuals are richly layered, Leap! is no beauty to look at, and the humor is uninspired. With few alternatives available for kiddos, I sympathize with any parents that will be subjected to this film. If you’re a grown fan of animation, I’d hold out for The Lego Ninjago Movie next month.