At a crucial moment in Wreck-It Ralph, the title character chides gung-ho wannabe kart driver Vanellope Von Schweetz with, “What did you think? Oh, I’ll just magically win the race, just ’cause I really want to!” That taunt becomes the text of Leap!, the latest Weinstein Company feature to illustrate the great divide between the Weinsteins and their former overseers at Disney when it comes to animated movies.
Set against lovingly illustrated backgrounds but featuring characters who appear to have escaped from a higher-end video game, Leap! is the latest family feature to espouse a “listen to your heart and believe in yourself” message. Nothing wrong with that, except that the delivery is flawed from the start, when we’re introduced to Félicie (voiced by Elle Fanning), an 11-year-old occupant of an orphanage in 1884 Brittany, France who loves to dance, but has no particular plans to pursue it until her pal Victor (Nat Wolff) shows her a postcard of the Paris Opera. Immediately, she decides that her destiny is to perform the ballet there, and she and Victor, who aspires to be an inventor, wackily escape the orphanage and travel to the City of Lights.
A few fart and bird-poop jokes later, Félicie manages to land a spot in the Paris Opera ballet school—not due to qualifications, but because she purloins the acceptance letter of nasty little blonde biyotch Camille (Maddie Ziegler, from the Sia videos). When classes begin, Félicie doesn’t know the meaning of “warm-up” or basic ballet terms, but fortunately, she makes the acquaintance of Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), a cleaning woman in the employ of Camille’s wicked witch of a mom (Kate McKinnon). Wouldn’t you know it, Odette was once a great dancer who got sidelined by an injury, and she Miyagis Félicie with chore-oriented training so that Félicie can rise to the top of her class. Yet Félicie is not so devoted to her craft that she is immune to the charms of Rudolf (Tamir Kapelian), a handsome, accomplished Russian dancer who becomes entranced by her, mostly because she’s the star of the story.
While Félicie is getting everything handed to her, the script (by Éric Summer—who directed with Éric Warin—Laurent Zeitoun and Carol Noble) piles on dialogue that is alternatively inspirational, on-the-nose (“I hate kids, especially orphans!”) and anachronistic. The latter also applies to some of the costuming—Félicie sports the latest in 19th-century denim shorts and leg warmers—and iconic visuals: Victor finds grunt work on the in-progress Eiffel Tower, which didn’t begin construction until 1887, and the movie further fudges history a bit to allow the Statue of Liberty to provide background for a key setpiece. Victor’s bungling on the job and his own projects is milked for wan slapstick, so by default, Félicie’s arc engenders more sympathy, and has a few affecting moments—if only her lack of true struggle and effort didn’t undercut her achievements.
Leap! has already been released in other countries under the title Ballerina, and some tinkering has been done with the casting for the U.S. edition, since the Weinsteins apparently feel obligated to meddle with every film they release. Dane DeHaan originally played Victor until he was pointlessly replaced by Wolff, and other voices were redone by the overqualified McKinnon (who took over no less than three roles) and Mel Brooks. The latter plays a character who is at first antagonistic toward Félicie but later has a change of heart just ’cause she’s so darn plucky, and he’s not the only one. Just as contrived is a climactic Die Hard-esque action setpiece, complete with wisecracking villain, and at the end, the film insults the very art it purports to celebrate when dancers take to the stage for a performance of The Nutcracker (which—oops—didn’t debut until 1892), and what we hear on the soundtrack isn’t Tchaikovsky but a Jepsen synth-pop song.
Is it wrong to be so hard on a movie clearly intended to please viewers under 10 and not mean old adult critics? I don’t think so, because Leap! consistently shortcuts its heroine’s realization of her goals; it tells those kids that the dream is enough, that following their heart trumps putting in the work, that they can let themselves get distracted at a crucial moment and still jump right into a major dance production without a day of rehearsal. The little girls at which Leap! is squarely aimed deserve a better heroine, a better message, and a better movie.