Never give up on your dreams
Computer-generated family-friendly fare are a dine-a-dozen these days — to think, last year we had Disney’s Moana and Zootopia, Illumination Entertainment’s The Secret Life of Pets and Sing, sequels in Finding Dory, Kung Fu Panda 3 and Ice Age: Collision Course, and let’s not forget Sony’s The Angry Birds Movie and the raunchy adult-catered Sausage Party. And that’s only just the tip of the iceberg. It makes sense then that the so-so Ballerina would get lost in the crowd, the movie produced at L’Atelier Animation in Montreal, Canada, a studio founded in 2012, this lag effect putting it ions behind the frontrunners in the genre, who’ve had years to fine-tune and perfect their craft.
The first feature film created at the French-Canadian L’Atelier, Ballerina — known simply as Leap! in the U.S. — tells the story of copper-haired Félicie Milliner (voiced by the lovely Elle Fanning), an orphan girl who yearns of escaping to Paris to follow her dreams, the starry-eyed youngster determined to become a professional danseuse.
Set in 1879, the movie opens up in rural Brittany, with the cheeky Félicie and her rebellious best friend Victor (Dane DeHaan) fleeing their glum orphanage home, this road to glory leading the pair all the way to Paris, the duo adamant on perusing their own individual passions — Victor longing to become a famous inventor and Félicie an accomplished ballerina, despite her lack of formal training. Upon arrival, however, the two are inadvertently separated, the penniless Félicie left wandering the streets until eventually winding up in the custody of Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), a mysterious caretaker for a slave-driving high society woman named Régine Le Haut (Julie Khaner), whose hoity-toity daughter, Camille (Maddie Ziegler), is a student of the prestigious school of the Paris Opera Ballet, the institution Félicie wishes to someday attend.
As chance would have it, Félicie gets the opportunity to audition for the college by assuming the identity of Camille; this charade, though, doesn’t last long, as Félicie’s true identity is quickly exposed. Showcasing her natural skill and raw talent, the Ballet’s back-breaking choreographer, Louis Mérante (Terrence Scammell), allows Félicie to, just like the other pupils in her class, audition for the role of a lifetime, the female dancers — via a process of elimination — given a chance to prove their worth, the last one standing securing a prized position, an opportunity to play Clara in The Nutcracker and dance alongside the best-of-the-best in a sell-out show at the Grand Opera House. Now, with a mentor in former prima ballerina Odette, Félicie pushes her body harder than ever before, the wannabe dancer resolved into turning her seemingly unreachable aspiration into a reality.
Helmed by Eric Summer — who hails from Brittany himself — and Éric Warin, Ballerina is a commendable effort from the first-time filmmaking team, this dream-chasing escapade infused with enough wholesome messages to inspire the youngins, the flick making observations on friendship, confidence, belonging and the pursuit of ambition. Still, the screenplay — penned by director Summer, along with Carol Noble, Le père Noël (2014), and Laurent Zeitoun, A Perfect Plan (2012) — never quite reaches its full potential, the movie suffused with overcooked underdog clichés which, more often than not, drain the charm out of proceedings. Characters are far too conventional, too, most not as deep or appealing as they could have been, with genuine insight, emotion and motivation often taking a backseat to the dazzling grand jetés (more on these later). In addition, a looney-tunes third act ‘scuffle’ atop a yet-to-be-shipped Statue of Liberty (which was designed and built in France then later handed to the United States as a gift) is eye-rollingly preposterous and simply too far-fetched, this scene derailing some of the flick’s credibility.
Thankfully, 19th century Pariee has been wonderfully conceptualized, the film’s visuals more or less en pointe. Given director Éric Warin’s prominent career in animation, Ballerina, at least, looks pretty, the realist approach to the artwork bolstering the narrative pratfalls. A semi-constructed Eiffel Tower, which features heavily as a backdrop, is easy on the eyes, so too is the gorgeously rendered period-piece City of Lights, with general attention to detail exhaustive and sharp, the movie set during the raising of La Tour Eiffel.
In terms of its main event, the film’s elaborate and graceful ballet arrangements are rather impressive, with filmmakers turning to Aurélie Dupont and Jérémie Bélingard (two real-life dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet) to perform the movie’s twists, turns and pirouettes via key frame animation, both Dupont and Bélingard eventually going on to become choreographers on the movie’s ballet routines. Alas, for all its technical precision in the dance arena, some of the basic character motions come off as rigid or clunky, these movements not as fluent as they ought to be — figure that one out!
Soundtrack-wise, Ballerina flaunts an assortment of musical styles from a selection of eras — from sugary pop to grand and classical — this mix of tunes conveying the right amount of zing, wow and sentimentality. There’s a song by Sia, titled ‘Suitcase,’ that really hammer’s home some of the story’s themes, the track doing a fine job in expressing Félicie’s deep love for dance and how following one’s desires can ultimately bring much joy, the musical choices, Parisian architecture and performance elements clearly standing out as flick’s most applause-worthy.
Balletomane Félicie is voiced nicely by Elle Fanning, Maleficent (2014), the 18-year old starlet instilling this blossoming showgirl with resilience and gusto, making her a protagonist young ladies can sorta look up to, Félicie overcoming numerous obstacles and impossible odds while finding the strength to face those who intimidate and hold her down. Félicie’s clumsy sometimes boastful friend, Victor — whose crush on our heroine is awfully apparent — is played by Dane DeHaan, The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro (2014), who just so happens to be 30-years of age. While DeHaan provides some honest humor and heart as the affable would-be inventor, he just sounds a tad too mature to be voicing a kid — even so, Victor’s scenes in the workshop of Gustave Eiffel, having landed himself an ‘unofficial’ assistant role for the famed engineer, provide some well-times slapstick gags.
Snobbish ‘stage-mom’ Régine Le Haut is slightly overplayed by Julie Khaner, Chloe (2009), whose frosty villainess is way too cruel and nasty to be unbelievable, while her hoofer daughter, Camille, fares somewhat better, Maddie Ziegler — the seasoned dancer making her motion picture debut here — imbuing the egotistical brat with a well-balanced medley of poise, fervor and snottiness. Canadian singer-songwriter Carly Rae Jepsen does a fine job breathing life into broken ballerina Odette, who takes on the role of Félicie’s personal dance coach, Odette’s unorthodox methods teaching the budding ballerina a thing or two about life along the way. Finally, Laurent Maurel, The Well (2016), is commendable as the goatee sporting Louis Mérante, a respected ballet instructor who keeps the lasses on their toes, his stern and snide disposition aligning with his inflexible yet fair resolve.
Masquerading as a Karate Kid for dance (narratively speaking), Ballerina is an uplifting feel-good romp that’s sure to resound with its core audience. Personally, though, I just didn’t find it to be all that enthralling, the story lacking sheer ingenuity or the subtle intellect of other, far superior, animated features — but then again, I’m not an 8-year-old girl. Definitely ‘watchable,’ I’d say that Ballerina is more suited for the small screen, being somewhat in line with those home-video Tinker Bell pics. In any case, if you’re keen to watch a film about an ambitious young lady go after her calling, check out Moana (2016) instead.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by S-Littner