There’s a good deal of visual artistry in “Leap!,” a tale of a little orphan’s struggle to fulfill her dream of becoming a dancer. But as with so many foreign-made animated films imported to the United States—it’s a French-Canadian co-production—it seems an unlikely fit with the interests and attitudes of American kids, and will likely bore rather than enchant them, even the little girls who are its most natural audience.
Originally titled “Ballerina,” the picture is set in 1880s France, at least if the fact that both the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower are depicted as under construction means anything. Felicie (voiced in this English version by Elle Fanning) is a vivacious eleven-year old living in an orphanage in Brittany, where her only keepsake from her mother is a little music box featuring a dancing ballerina. She and her best friend, jovial Victor (Nat Wolff), an aspiring inventor who has (like Daedalus) contrived some wings to fly with, plan to escape the watchful eyes of the Mother Superior (Kate McKinnon) and her helper, gruff Luteau (Mel Books), find their way to Paris and achieve their ambitions.
They do, of course, and though getting separated each has some success. After some misadventures, reported in an amusing montage, Victor finds himself on the lowest rung of the staff of the tower’s architect. Felicie, meanwhile, has wormed her way into the Ballet School of the Paris Opera, using an invitation she’s swiped from snooty Camille (Maddie Ziegler), whose supremely nasty mother Regine (McKinnon again) is intent on her daughter’s becoming the place’s star student.
Most of what follows centers on Felicie, with Victor an increasingly supporting character. Even after her imposture is discovered, imperious choreographer Merante (Terrence Scammell) allows her to remain in his class and compete with Camille, who’s apparently inherited her contemptuous attitudes from her mother, to co-star with the reigning prima ballerina in the upcoming “Nutcracker.” She will be trained by Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), a once-great dancer now reduced by injury to serving as Regine’s housemaid. But her attention is diverted by Rudi (Tamir Kapellan), the handsome but arrogant young male star of the company, and her interest in him makes Victor jealous.
All will come to a head when Regine threatens Felicie directly and Victor must intervene, with his wings, to save her. The last act also features a dance-off between Camille and Felicie that will raise the ultimate question—are you dreaming your dream for the right reason, or just to please others?
“Leap!” can best be seen as a Disneyfied gender-switch on “Billy Elliot,” in which the rough patches have been smoothed over and a princess theme introduced (Felicie is given a tiara as part of her costume for her initial performance). It’s inoffensive but bland, a composite that carefully incorporates elements from other movies into what seems a prefabricated construct rather than something imaginative and innovative. Even the treatment of ballet is tentative: there are snippets of Tchaikovsky, but when pushed the score reverts to the kind of modern pop tunes that marked “Frozen,” assuming that too much classical stuff wouldn’t go down well.
On the other hand, the visuals—especially the backgrounds, as opposed to the character animation or even the dance sequences—is solid CG stuff, and the voice work is fine, though there are some oddities. The original English version featured Dane DeHaan as Victor and Julie Khaner as Regine, and it would be interesting to know why they were replaced by Wolff and McKinnon. (Was it to snuff out any aftereffect from DeHaan’s recent bomb “Valerian”?) And while Ziegler makes a good Camille, an animated movie can’t show her actual dancing skill—for that you’ll need to go to “The Book of Henry.”
“Leap!” is thus a middle-grade animated feature that might appeal to little girls who dream of being princesses or ballerinas, but isn’t distinctive enough to make even them jump with joy.