Elle Fanning heads up the voice cast of a pleasantly conventional, attractively animated slice of wish-fulfilment for everyone’s inner ballerina.
If your blush-pink daydreams of tutus, pirouettes and adoring spotlights were darkly dashed by the shattered psychological mindwarp of Black Swan, take heart: Ballerina (AKA Leap!) is here to generously restore them. An unabashed wish-fulfilment fantasy that sweetly checks off every conceivable follow-your-heart cliché, this elegantly animated French-Canadian production isn’t inventing any new narrative choreography with its slender tale of Félicie, a plucky, impoverished Brittany orphan who heads to Paris to realize her ambition of joining the ballet.
But even if it never quite takes the risks implied by the exclamatory title adopted for its upcoming US release, Ballerina follows the established steps with general grace and good humour. Sure to please children of a gentle, fanciful persuasion, Eric Summer and Eric Warin’s film may pleasantly surprise their minders with the painterly CG beauty of its Gallic backdrops; for all our heroine’s efforts, the City of Lights remains the prima ballerina of this particular show.
Already released in numerous territories, the Montreal-made Ballerina will undergo a minor makeover for its Stateside release. Kate McKinnon, Mel Brooks, and Nat Wolff will be added to the voice cast, the latter needlessly replacing Dane DeHaan, whose disarming voice work as the heroine’s gawky love interest is among the original version’s most appealing assets. Such modifications shouldn’t greatly alter the commercial appeal of a bright tween package already destined for ancillary longevity, even as its anachronistic power-pop soundtrack — heavier on Demi Lovato than Tchaikovsky — passes its sell-by date.
As it is, Ballerina is blithely indifferent to time as a general concept. Ostensibly set in the late 19th century, where the Eiffel Tower is under construction while Félicie (voiced by Elle Fanning) prances about in decidedly millennial jean shorts, it’s also a film that would have you believe that the first through fifth positions in classical ballet can be mastered in a matter of hours. Fair enough: Some pretty big dreams need to come true in the space of just 85 minutes, beginning with a daffy, chicken-abetted escape scheme from the dour rural Catholic orphanage where Félicie and her raggedy, plainly besotted best friend Victor (DeHaan) have been cooped up since infancy.
An enthusiastic dancer in her moments alone, Félicie yearns to polish her amateur footwork at a ballet academy; aviation-obsessed Victor, meanwhile, longs to become an inventor. In the immediate wake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remake, which made a point of Belle’s own inventing aspirations, it’s hard not to note the relative conservatism of gender definitions in Ballerina, though at least Félicie is a commendably resourceful, self-motivated heroine.
Off to Paris, then, where Félicie and Victor each stumble into a mix of waifish hardship and pixie-dusted good fortune: He lands lowly grunt work at the design studio of engineer Gustave Eiffel, while she dupes her way into an intensely competitive elite class at the Paris Opera, where a handful of far more highly trained dancers are auditioning for the lead in a new production of ‘The Nutcracker’ by Simon Cowell-esque maestro Merante (Terence Scammell).
Will she prevail? Do a ballerina’s toes bleed? There are no surprises as Ballerina hops and skips to its final curtain, but the getting there is mostly rewarding — thanks in large part to the protagonist’s nuanced supporting relationships with the hapless Victor and her melancholic charlady mentor Odette (pop star Carly Rae Jepsen, a surprisingly warm, sympathetic vocal presence).
Away from the serviceable storytelling, Ballerina is most effective as a showcase for art director Florent Masurel and Montreal-based animation studio L’Atelier, whose artists pull off a few virtuoso technical coups; in particular, soaring aerial flights across rural France and fin de siècle Paris, both rendered with loving attention to textured architectural detail and shifting shades of golden daylight. If the character design isn’t quite as rich and fluid as the world behind them, it nonetheless stands up to a wealth of more expensively assembled US studio animation.
Only the ballet sequences themselves disappoint, sidestepping opportunities for more inspired, extravagant spectacle — not helped, admittedly, by a disjointed soundtrack undecided between Klaus Badelt’s traditional scoring and a panoply of synthetic pop confections that, while perfectly catchy and crammed with suitably inspirational lyrics, do little to convey Félicie’s artistic inspiration. Played at the stage climax, Jepsen’s bespoke contribution, “Cut to the Feeling,” may be a tasty shot of electro-bubblegum, but just try dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy to it. In this respect, if few others, Ballerina moves very much to its own beat.