“If you escape with me tonight, our dreams will come true…”
The moment I heard Victor utter those words to Felicie, I knew I was hooked on the story of Leap! No, it’s not the best animated movie I’ve ever seen and I dare say it’s forgettable in the grand scheme of things, but it has a lot of passion. And it’s also set in 1879 Paris: The City of Lights and Dreams itself, which is a definite win in my book.
Originally titled “Ballerina” (thank goodness they decided to give it a more symbolic title), Leap! is the story of an orphan named Felicie (Elle Fanning) who dreams of becoming a famous ballerina. She escapes from the rigid Catholic orphanage that’s holding her back from her dreams with her best friend Victor (Nat Wolff in the American version) in tow. Victor has a dream of his own: he wants to become a famous inventor. What better backdrop is there than Paris in the late 19th century for two young, starry-eyed dreamers? The allure of Paris is its dazzling lights and scintillating sights, which have attracted countless dreamers over the years like moths driven to a proverbial flame.
Once in Paris, Felicie and Victor go their separate ways – at first by accident and then because they have separate paths and dreams to pursue. Felicie quickly becomes a pupil at a Grand Opera House, which I believe was meant to be similar to the opulent Palais Garnier, which housed the Paris Opera from 1861 to 1875, while Victor becomes an apprentice to world-famous engineer/architect Gustave Eiffel in the midst of him completing his two most ambitious projects: the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. I’m not sure which is more unbelievable, but we’ll go with Felicie’s story since it’s more central to the plot.
While poking around at the Grand Opera House, Felicie encounters Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), a middle-aged cleaning woman who walks with a limp and has a secret of her own: she used to be a graceful ballerina before her crippling accident cut her career short. Odette takes a liking to Felicie and gives her a place to live and work, while also training her to become a ballerina because she recognizes Felicie’s unmistakable passion for the dance. The family she works for is horrible – think Cinderella’s stepmother and evil stepsisters. Regine Le Haut (Kate McKinnon) wants her daughter Camille (Maddie Ziegler) to dance a coveted role in The Nutcracker, but Felicie takes Camille’s place in ballet lessons/auditions when she intercepts her invitation to be a part of the ballet. However, it doesn’t take the Le Hauts long to figure this out and eventually it becomes Felicie vs. Camille in a toe-to-toe competition for the lead role.
Leap! teaches kids of all ages a valuable lesson about pursuing your dreams no matter how far-fetched they may seem at the time. It also marks the first time in a long time that I’ve seen – or rather heard – Mel Brooks do something. He has a minor but fun role as Luteau, the man who tries to stop Felicie and Victor from escaping the orphanage at the beginning of the movie. I didn’t love Leap! as much as I was expecting to, but I did like it. The cast and animation are well done, though the story seems to lull in places and really it’s a story that’s been seemingly told a million times before.
Now available on Blu-ray and DVD, Leap! includes a behind-the-scenes video gallery and a sneak peek at stars Kate McKinnon, Nat Wolff and Maddie Ziegler in the recording booth. The bonus features are actually quite good. Nat made some solid points about how difficult it is for an actor to convey emotional expressions through animation where all you have to work with is your voice, while I adore watching Kate McKinnon talk about virtually anything under the sun. Both agreed it was a real treat to work with the legendary Mel Brooks in this animated feature.
The other featurette shared some insights into what it was like to reconstruct 19th century Paris (the animators did a lot of painstaking research but they had access to all kinds of cool historical documents and architectural blueprints to do so) and how difficult it was to animate ballerinas in a convincing way. The studio (which was pretty much created for the making of this movie) brought in real-life world-renowned dancers to mimic their movements … and then they transformed some of those movements into things you can only witness in animation. So, if some of those dance sequences leave you a little awestruck, there’s good reason. The idea was to make the dancers leap higher than possible in real life, as an homage to giving dreams their wings. And the result is, at times, breathtaking. There’s one scene in particular when Felicie first arrives at the Grand Opera House and watches a ballerina from backstage that caught me off-guard in its beautiful execution.
However, the thing that struck me the most after watching the bonus features was how much passion went into the making of this movie. I believe they said it took over 200 animators 2-3 years to complete it! Can you imagine? The result is the Paris of yesteryear and the art of dance come to life in ways they’ve never been seen before … and that’s exciting in the world of animation. As they say in the movie, “No matter what happens, never give up on your dreams. If you never leap, you’ll never know what it’s like to fly.” Those are perhaps sound words of advice for all of us in this weary world.
Lionsgate generously provided Hotchka with a digital version of the film for reviewing purposes.