This French production from co-directors Éric Summer and Éric Warin (the latter of whom was in the art department on The Triplets of Belleville) has been dubbed in English and given a bit of a musical overhaul, with the result being Leap!, the tale of 11-year-old orphan Felicie (Elle Fanning), who gets a shot at realizing her dream to move to Paris and study dance at the prestigious Opera Ballet School. Set in 1884, the film has truly stunning visuals of Paris on the verge of a wave of modernization (the under-construction Eiffel Tower is a key component), just as Felicie and her orphanage best friend Victor (Nat Wolff) escape their dreary confines and land in the City of Lights just in time for Felicie to meet the school’s mysterious cleaning lady, Odette (singer Carly Rae Jepsen), who just happens to know a thing or two about ballet, despite having a noticeable leg injury.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Leap! The animators have done a tremendous job re-creating the look of real ballet performances (I don’t know if performance-capture technology was used, but the level of detail suggests maybe it was). The opening scenes in the orphanage are enhanced a great deal by the presence of Mel Brooks as the caretaker and general heavy, who makes sure no orphans escape. But the film’s true secret weapon is “SNL’s” Kate McKinnon, who voices three of the movie’s characters and adds some much-needed weirdness to the generally predictable and familiar story.
In order to get into the school, Felicie assume the identity of another student who was supposed to get in (a girl who becomes her arch-enemy, Camille Le Haut, voiced by Maddie Ziegler), and she struggles to get better in a hurry (with Odette’s intense training) to stay in the running for a key role in an upcoming performance of “The Nutcracker.” Including a villain character into a story in which Felicie’s own lack of professional training is her real worst enemy seems a bit unnecessary, as does the introduction of a handsome young male dancer, who has his eye on our heroine. These distractions take away from the inherent drama of the competition aspect of the film. Plus, it’s clear that Victor is tried of being in the friend zone, so why entertain the idea that another boy might catch Felicie’s eye?
Leap! has qualities as an animated work that set it high above a great number of recent offerings (especially The Emoji Movie), and if you’re desperate to find something family friendly to take the youngsters to in the fading days of summer, you could do worse. I happen to have a weakness for animated films that pay particular attention to detail, and manifesting this bustling, beautiful, period version of Paris really impressed me. I doubt Leap! will win any awards at the end of the year, but there is something charming, visually compelling (especially during the dance numbers), and inspiring about Felicie’s journey. This is the mildest version of a recommendation I am capable of giving, but I’m giving it nevertheless.