If one were to judge Leap! by it’s marketing, you would probably assume it’s a run-of-the-mill animated feature with a “follow your dreams” premise. After seeing Leap!, I can confirm that it is indeed a run-of-the-mill animated feature with a “follow your dreams” premise. But hidden beneath the movie’s more lackluster qualities does lie a beating heart. So while I can’t flat-out recommend Leap! due to its shortcomings, I did find myself wanting to like it while I was watching it, and that’s an achievement in and of itself.
Perhaps it’s the fact that – not so long ago – The Emoji Movie was released, that I feel a bit more forgiving of Leap!’s missteps than I otherwise might. The Emoji Movie, after all, was so bottom-of-the-barrel in concept, and so incompetent in execution, that it can be seen as a new low standard for animated storytelling. By comparison, Leap!’s simple story of an orphan girl wanting to become a ballerina felt very refreshing. It may be standard animated fare, but I’ll take it over the desperation that spawned The Emoji Movie any day.
The plot really is little more than a young orphan girl, Félicie (Elle Fanning) escaping from an orphanage with a young boy named Victor (Nat Wolff), who make their way to Paris, where Félicie hopes to become a ballerina, and Victor looks to become an inventor. It’s simple stuff, but it’s made a bit more lively due to the period setting. Taking place in the 1880s, the Paris in Leap! still sees the Eiffel Tower under construction (as well as the Statue of Liberty, which is mistakenly already given its greenish color in the film).
There are of course bumps in the road for the two orphans, with Félicie quickly finding a rival in Camille (Maddie Ziegler), who is dedicated to learning ballet due to the demands of her overbearing mother, Regine (Kate McKinnon). After Camille proves to be a bit of a brat, Félicie ends up stealing Camille’s admittance letter for the ballet, and begins posing as Camille in order to live her dream, with the only people knowing of her real identity being Victor and Regine’s cleaning lady, Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), who ends up being Félicie’s dance teacher via Karate Kid-style training techniques.
The premise on its own is fine. It’s safe and predictable, to be sure, but it has good intentions. Problems with the film arise, however, with some questionable pacing. Too many plot points – particularly those early on in the movie – come across as incredibly rushed, and don’t feel properly developed. And sadly, by the end of it, Regine goes from a cold-hearted woman to an outright cartoonish villain, chasing Félicie with a mallet in an entirely unnecessary action set piece that takes place on the aforementioned Statue of Liberty. And I kid you not, the villainess even makes an MC Hammer reference during these events. So while the majority of the movie, even when it feels rushed and obvious, still boasts some heart and charm, that ending set piece definitely comes off as a jumping the shark/nuking the fridge moment. There are also some pop songs featured in the background at times which feel almost as out-of-place as the MC Hammer reference, seeing as this is a film taking place in 1880s France.
Well, after seeing Leap! I decided to do some research on it, and there might be something to these misplaced elements. While I was aware going into the movie that it was a French-Canadian production originally released under the more appropriate title of Ballerina, it was only after seeing it that I discovered this American version actually made some notable changes to the film, which differ from the already-English language version of the film released elsewhere, and have even lead to vastly different critical receptions between versions.
While Elle Fanning and Maddie Ziegler’s vocals remain unchanged, Nat Wolff and Kate McKinnon replace the original voices for their characters, and additional bits of dialogue and other edits have been added for inexplicable reasons. I may have to check out the alternate English version of the film, which I have a sneaking suspicion is absent of the MC Hammer line, and maybe even the pop tunes. I’m not sure if the pacing would be any better though.
This is all a crying shame, because while the film may lack in originality in many respects, I still found a lot of promise in Leap!. The animation may not be remarkable, but it looks a lot better than many other CG animated films that don’t come from the big studios, and the dancing sequences are beautifully and elegantly animated. I also liked the two main characters, as well as Elle Fanning’s and Maddie Ziegler’s voice work. And even with its predictability, it still has enough heart to make it a mostly worthwhile viewing for its target audience (again, we live in a post-Emoji Movie world, we should be thankful that an animated film about an ambitious young girl even exists right now). I don’t think it would be a great film under different circumstances (the ending set piece would still be there, and it would still be a pretty by-the-books animated feature), but I can imagine Leap! might live up to its promise a whole lot more without lines like “it’s hammer time!” tossed in it. That line wasn’t even funny in Ninja Turtles III, back when kids would actually get the reference.
Though I’m going to rate Leap! on the lower half of my rating scale, I actually do so with a bit of disappointment. I didn’t go in to Leap! with any real expectations, but when I did enjoy it, it was quite charming. It’s just a shame the elements that do drag it down prevent the better pieces from coming together to make the movie they should.
But hey, at least the plot doesn’t resolve itself due to a text message. I can certainly appreciate Leap! for that.