Lofty heights are not obtained.
At first glance, the new film Leap! feels like an empowering story of an orphan making her dreams a reality. It is the late 19th century in France, and our heroine, Félicie (Elle Fanning), wants nothing so much as to escape from her orphanage and to be a dancer. As the film unspools, we watch her successes and failures as she pursues her dream.
Upon closer examination, however, the tale of empowerment is not a terribly strong one. At one moment in the film directed by Eric Summer and Eric Warin, Félicie is perfectly willing to abandon her best friend, Victor (Nat Wolff), at the orphanage as she tries a solo escape. The two appear to have an agreement to break out together, but Félicie is willing to cast him aside if she feels as though the opportunity is right. Later, in order to attend the ballet school, Félicie steals an admission letter and lies about her identity to use the letter.
Although she has substantially less training than the other girls, Félicie is an incredibly quick study and able to power through a series of cuts as she auditions for a role in the Nutcracker. She may practice hard at some points, but on the night before the final audition, rather than practicing more or getting a good night’s sleep—that is, doing something to show that dancing is truly her dream and that she’s still serious about it—she not only goes out on a date but also fails to let Victor know she won’t be joining him.
Despite all of this, Félicie’s story is largely one of triumph over adversity, one of great successes along with her minimal failures. It doesn’t matter if she runs afoul of the rich Régine Le Haut (Kate McKinnon, who also voices Félicie’s mother and the Mother Superior) or Régine’s daughter, Camille (Maddie Ziegler). They may present momentary obstacles, but there is never a sense imparted by the film that Félicie will be anything less than a crashing success.
Certainly there are lessons Félicie learns along the way about being a good friend and the importance of practice, but the cost of these lessons is always small. She is never abandoned by those she betrays or disappoints, and at one point, the overseer of the orphanage, Luteau (Mel Brooks), does a complete 180 on his entire attitude because… well, because Félicie has a dream (not that she hadn’t had one earlier before this abrupt shift).
Félicie is also aided by Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), who takes on the role of a surrogate mother. Odette offers Félicie a home, food, and Mr. Miyagi-like tutoring in ballet. The relationship is a positive, meaningful one even if it feels overly serendipitous that the two meet at all. The film is at its most human and touching when Odette is caring for Félicie and helping the girl learn ballet.
It must be said that it isn’t just Félicie who stumbles into success either, Victor does as well. He wants to be an inventor and on his first day in Paris finds himself working under (more than one level under) Gustave Eiffel. One of the highlights of the film is the funny series of visuals which accompany Victor’s story on how he became employed—his words are loosely related to what actually took place—but as with Félicie it feels too easy. Leap! offers the sense of being less about everyone’s ability to alter their own circumstances and achieve their dreams through hard work and determination and much more about jumping into the air from a great height without thinking and magically landing safely and successfully.
One of the impressive things about the movie, however, is that despite its issues, the audience finds itself still instinctively rooting for Félicie and Victor. Some of this may be the largely engaging animation; a repeated image of Félicie’s music box falling in a dream is haunting, and will stick with audiences after Leap! ends. That said, the film does occasionally falter in its animation as well, providing some jarring moments like a dancer moving in a way that feels somehow false.