The one thing animation studios must do in order to give their characters life is create emotion within the eyes of those characters. It’s not easy to do; even some real-life actors are incapable of producing any type of energy within their facial features. But they say the eyes are the window to the soul, and if you aren’t able to capture that essence, audiences are unable to connect with the character because they feel fake. And giving them a strong voice doesn’t help if their eyes feel like glass, or the features in their face don’t allow for strong, true emotion. This is the main problem with Leap!, a new animated film distributed by The Weinstein Company — no matter how fun the movie may be, it grows bland because the characters all feel too plastic.
The film revolves around two orphans: Felicie (Elle Fanning) wants nothing more than to learn to dance, and her best friend Victor (Dane DeHaan) is a wannabe inventor. After breaking out of the orphanage they feel is stifling their creativity, they head to France where they make a bet to see who can reach their dream first. After being separated, Felicie finds her way to a prestigious dance academy and through a series of fated circumstances, worms her way into competing to be the lead in the academy’s performance of The Nutcracker. But to earn her spot, it’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of stamina and a good heart. Is Felicie up for the challenge?
Meanwhile, Victor finds his way into an apprenticeship (well, sort of) of an inventor who is working on both the Eiffel tower and the Statue of Liberty. Yes, you read that right. The film takes place somewhere in the 1880s when both of these iconic structures are still in production (though the timing is a little off, based on the actual timeline of when the two iconic structures were built), and at least one of them is used during a finale chase sequence that seems a bit much when considering the overall atmosphere of the film. But the key to this final chase sequence is how both Felicie and Viktor find a way to use their skills to escape the evil mother (Julie Kahner) of Camille (Maddie Ziegler), another student at the academy who wants desperately to win the lead in The Nutcracker.
There’s plenty to like about the film, especially the dance sequences. Whenever Felice is stuck in a montage of training, or in a dance sequence, the film comes to life. It’s clear that the creators of the film are true fans of dance, and at least one person was a professional dancer, able to make certain everything remained in tune with real technique. No matter how minor they may be, everything about these sequences, from the animation to the score and the choreography is spot on. It’s what’s in between that lacks the right amount of energy to keep us interested in the plot or the circumstances the characters find themselves in. And it all comes down to the plasticity of the characters.
I’m not saying there aren’t moments where we can feel the happiness, confusion, anger or frustration of the characters. When we are able to see those emotions, you start to connect with them on a deeper level. But the moments are so fleeting, when they return to their stagnant resting faces, or when the emotions displayed by the animation doesn’t match the emotions being delivered by the strong voice talent, things begin to feel off and a bit disjointed. It’s a shame because all of the main characters, including Felicie, Viktor, Camille and Felicie’s mentor and reluctant dance instructor, Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), are all incredibly fun characters on the surface and could have really pulled off a magical fairy tale had the animation just lived up to their sparkling personalities.
It seems writers Carol Noble, Laurent Zeitoun and Eric Summer wanted to create a fun, lighthearted film about pursuing your dreams no matter the obstacles and working hard to achieve those dreams and never giving up, and they succeeded when thinking of it in that context. However, the road to learning those lessons is paved with cotton candy – everything is just far too easy and the obstacles are never truly that hard. No one in the film ever seemed to get a comeuppance worthy of their characters. For example, after arriving at the academy, Felice meets a hot young male dancer that takes a liking to her. He’s as arrogant as they come, but because she’s so engaged with his talent, she can’t see the forest through the trees. When she agrees to go out with him and finally sees his true colors, the whole arc just ends without any consequence or flair whatsoever.
What’s worse is the rivalry between Felicie and Camille. It starts out well, with Camille being as overconfident and spoiled as all get out, and her relationship with Felicie is a good hook, but then she goes missing for half the film. By the time she returns, the rivalry just seems so unimportant that when the climax occurs, there’s no depth to it. I probably could have overlooked this if I had been more invested in the characters, but as it is, the flaws are far more blatant, including how almost every character speaks in an American accent despite the film taking place entirely in France.
I can’t help but think had the film been made by Disney or Pixar (or Dreamworks for that matter) that it would have been a stellar piece of animation. That’s the difference between what they do and what the final product was. Whether it’s a toy, a car, an animal, a monster, a robot or a human, these companies understand how to capture the emotion that is necessary for connecting with an audience. Leap! comes close to being on that level in many respects, but fails to do so where it counts.
My Grade: B
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