In 1880s France, effervescent twinkle-toed eleven year old orphan Félicie (voiced by Elle Fanning) yearns to become a ballerina. To that end Félicie escapes from an orphanage in rural Brittany with her best friend Victor (Dane DeHaan) and travels to Paris. While Victor, an aspiring inventor, takes an apprenticeship at the workshop of Gustav Eiffel, Félicie struggles to find a means to study at the prestigious Paris Opera Ballet. Working as a servant girl alongside Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen, of 'Call Me Maybe' fame), an enigmatic cripple with a mysterious knowledge of ballet, Félicie makes an unfortunate enemy out of spiteful, wealthy Régine Le Haut (Julie Khaner). Régine's daughter Camille (Maddie Ziegler, the little dancing girl from all those Sia videos) cruelly destroys the music box that is Felicie's only memento of her mother. In revenge Félicie assumes Camille's identity in order to enrol in Ballet school. Persevering through hardship, humiliation and numerous setbacks, Félicie blossoms into a gifted dancer until her rash decision comes back to haunt her and threaten her dream.
Released in the U.S. as Leap! with a slightly different voice cast featuring Mel Brooks, Nat Wolff as Victor and Saturday Night Live star Kate McKinnon in multiple roles, this French-Canadian production caught many critics off guard with its unexpected charm. Utilizing key frame animation of real-life Paris Opera dancers Aurélie Dupont and Jérémie Bélingard the dance sequences here are animated with great care and appreciable artistry. That alone elevates Ballerina above many of the cookie-cutter disposable children's films released in 2016. Impeccable production design recreates the Parisian period setting to spectacular effect despite our heroine sporting a rather anachronistic pair of denim hot-pants. Co-directors Éric Summer and Éric Warin utilize swooping camera moves and Spielbergian lighting tricks to weave a genuine sense of magic and awe around the ballet. Even hardened ballet-haters will grow to empathize with Félicie all-consuming love of dance.
The script, co-written by Summer, Carol Noble and Laurent Zeitoun, hits the familiar self-empowerment beats with the usual messages: 'Believe in yourself' and 'Never give up on your dreams.' Yet its sincerity and sense of wonder remain affecting and the story sensibly stresses the importance of hard work, dedication and no small amount of stamina when it comes to realizing your heart's desire. What is more the dialogue is surprisingly witty (who knew Dane DeHaan had an unexpected flair for wacky comedy), the sight gags are inventive and most importantly, the film is suffused with nuanced characters, generosity of spirit and heartfelt emotion. Only a contrived and silly climactic chase feels misjudged, tacked on a good three minutes after the story reaches its real emotional climax. Despite a score by Klaus Badelt the film sidelines classical music in favour of a tween-friendly pop soundtrack featuring the likes of Sia, Demi Lovato and inevitably Carly Rae Jepsen. Which is regrettable if perhaps understandable given the film's target audience. Speaking of one-hit wonder Carly Rae, even though she can't help but sound too young for her role, she handles the dramatic material quite capably. Elle Fanning voices winsome, wide-eyed Félicie with beguiling glee while Dan DeHaan adds a new string to his bow and is pretty darn likable as the hopeless infatuated Victor.
Perhaps the smartest decision the animators made, in light of the short attention span of the young audience, is to stage the dance sequences like action scenes. Indeed the film cannily fashions Félicie's ballet-training at the hands of crippled mistress Odette along the lines of a Jackie Chan kung fu movie. Fittingly Ballerina climaxes with a dance-off between Félicie and her rival styled like a martial arts duel complete with camera pyrotechnics and fiery pirouettes. The enthusiasm is infectious.