The movie Ballerina, cruelly renamed Leap! for American audiences, which goes to show that the Weinsteins’ desire to give distinctive non-American movies the most generic titles possible has not diminished since their heyday of butchering Hong Kong releases, is easily the best animated film I’ve seen in the theatre with my daughter since Shaun the Sheep two years ago. That’s not saying a whole lot considering the competition (Sing, Despicable Me 3, The Peanuts Movie, LEGO Batman), and Ballerina has many of the same faults: generic plotting and a reliance on the chase sequence as a substitute for real drama or suspense. But these flaws are balanced by a commitment to art and the work necessary to become good at it, and its rendering of both its Paris locations and the movements of dance is thrilling, relatively (compare for example the first time we see the grand school of the Paris Opera Ballet, the sense of wonder as we linger of its elaborate details, to the blurry, partial and indistinct images we get of the library in the remake of Beauty and the Beast).
For the American release, several voice actors were replaced (bringing in Mel Brooks, Kate McKinnon and Nat Wolfe) but I don’t know if any of the plotting has been altered, scenes reshot or not. Elle Fanning plays an orphan named Félicie who wants to become a dancer. She and her best friend Victor escape their orphanage (in the film’s most egregiously silly chase) and head to Paris, where she quickly cons her way into a dance class. Victor meanwhile gets a job working for Gustave Eiffel, who is simultaneously working on both the tower that bears his name and the Statue of Liberty, just one of the many historical errors in the film (the Statue is already green, for example, when its copper wouldn’t become so oxidized until it had been in New York for some time). Félicie’s story follows the traditional training arc: given the illogical demands of a plot-structuring contest (one dancer will be eliminated every class until the final one wins a part in the Nutcracker), she works hard doing a variety of non-dance things to build strength and skills. In the meantime, she’s wooed by a handsome, wealthy, blond Russian dancer, setting up a love triangle with Victor, which has largely-ignored class overtones (your classic Ducky/Blaine scenario). The real conflict of interest though is in the repeated question: “Why do you want to dance?” Her opponent, a petite combination of Ivan Drago and Todd Marinovich has one answer, and Félicie has another, but its a knee-jerk response, one produced without ay real thought: it’s her dream. That’s not enough though: until she learns a depth of self-understanding largely absent from kid movies (a shamefully phony world where even Charlie Brown is revealed as a winner), she’ll never be a great dancer. It’s not quite the psycho-sexual conflict between art and romance at the heart of The Red Shoes, but for a soon to be six year old who just signed up for her third year of ballet class, it’ll work.