If you were to come into my home, please don't because it's a mess, you may be surprised to find yourself face-to-face with a surprising amount of dance-inspired artwork including black-and-white photography, paintings, smaller sculptures and more. I am almost embarrassed to admit that I am a paraplegic, double below-knee amputee who has, despite my complete love for dance, never actually danced.
Okay. Okay. Maybe I've shimmied a few times. Maybe I've kinda sorta danced in that timid hands on the wheels kind of way that makes it perfectly clear that I'm not nearly as comfortable movin' and groovin' as my heart wants me to be.
I've often said I would never marry anyone who wouldn't dance with me. I have, in fact, been married once and, yes, she was a dancer. I love everything about dance. I love watching it. I love feeling it. I love learning about it. I love watching dancers of all types and shapes and sizes. It's not even that I love professional dance - I love people whose spirits dance and who allow that to come alive in their bodies.
I want to be like that. I'm not.
So, in many ways, despite being considerably older than the target audience for Leap!, I am, in fact, the target audience for Leap! I'm an introverted sentimental and a physically shy free spirit who's a sucker for "never give up your dreams" messages and simple, good-hearted stories.
In other words, I loved Leap!
Did I think Leap! was perfect? No, not really. The truth is I didn't care. In fact, as the closing credits scrolled by I quickly learned that the vast majority of the kids in the audience, boys and girls of several different races, didn't particularly care either. They didn't care that the animation in Leap! wasn't quite as artzy phartzy as contemporary standards. They didn't care that Leap! didn't cater to their ADD lifestyles. They didn't care that the action was calmer and the storyline slower than a good majority of animated features released in the United States.
Why didn't they care? The truth is I didn't ask. The truth is I was too busy enjoying watching them dancing in the aisles with amateur ballet moves that would put a smile on anyone's face who truly adores watching a child be inspired.
Indeed, I loved Leap!
The first animated feature release from The Weinstein Company's new Mizchief banner, Leap! tells the story of two orphans, Felicie (Elle Fanning) and Victor (Nat Wolff), who dream of bigger lives than may realistically be found from the isolated walls of their 1879 French orphanage. The nerdishly dashing Victor dreams of being a grand inventor, while the rhythmically inclined Felicie has visions of being a ballerina on the stages of Paris.
As a distributor known for the mostly dreadful but fairly popular Hoodwinked animated features, The Weinstein Company isn't exactly the first name you think of when you're thinking of high quality animated cinema. However, Leap! is precisely the kind of film one might expect from The Weinstein Company, a smaller indie motion picture with an approach to animation and story that is more consistent with British cinema than it is the usual American fare. While there've been attempts to Americanize it, most notably the American pop soundtrack featuring Carly Rae Jepsen, Demi Lovato and Sia, much of Leap! exudes an old world charm and quiet warmth that speaks to rather than shouts at the kiddoes.
Co-directed by first-timers Eric Summer and Eric Warin, Leap! is a familiar tale that plays loose, at times very loose, with the facts in favor of a paint-by-numbers inspirational tale as Felicie and Victor escape the clutches of the orphanage's overseer Luteau (Mel Brooks) and head off to Paris in some of the film's most energized and inspired scenes both in terms of story and animation. The dance numbers range from humorous to inspired to action-packed, though the film's tonal chaos occasionally causes it to come to a screeching halt. Upon their arrival in Paris, Victor and Felicie are quickly separated but, of course, this never lasts for long. Felicie, of course, finds her way to the Opera Ballet School where she is initially rejected by the school's caretaker, Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), whose not so subtle limp is one of many indicators of a rather substantial backstory. Eventually, Felicie's determination convinces Odette to allow the young girl to assist her in cleaning both the school and the home of Leap!'s resident baddies, Regine (Kate McKinnon) and her daughter Camille (Maddie Ziegler), the latter whose entire life has been focused on gaining entrance into the ballet school.
There is very little else that needs to be said about Leap! If it's an original story you require, you'd best look elsewhere. If, however, you're content to watch a familiar story presented well and with tremendous heart, then Leap! should prove most satisfying. A Canadian/French production, Leap! is part Karate Kid and part pop culture wannabe as weird, incredibly out of place references show up now and then including an odd MC Hammer reference and the Americanized soundtrack that feels and sounds awkward against the 19th century Parisian backdrop of the film. There are also moments when Leap stretches the comfort level, such as when the ballet school's lead dancer Rudolph (Tamir Kapelian), a dancer obviously much older dancer than the 11-year-old Felicie, overplays the flirtiness.
Fortunately, the awkward choices are brief and will likely fly past younger moviegoers as will the fact that one of the film's plot points, the building of the Statue of Liberty alongside the building of the Eiffel Tower, is just plain historically wrong.
Modest story problems aside, Leap! kept me surrendered from beginning to end with a quiet earnestness and simplicity that was refreshing in an age when distraction and action rule among animated features. The vocal work is uniformly strong with both Elle Fanning and Nat Wolff making for terrific, appealing leads and Carly Rae Jepsen adding a mature soulfulness and substance as Odette. Kate McKinnon handles three roles here and does so with ease, while the incomparable Mel Brooks is always a welcome presence and a particular delight as the film begins to wind down.
Flawed yet perfectly delightful in a myriad of ways, Leap! mesmerized the kids in the promo screening I attended as the usual shrieks, cries and fidgeting were replaced by attentive faces, laughs and wide eyes. As the screening wound down, the aisles were filled with kids dancing, alone and with each other, and, yes, this paraplegic, double amputee with spina bifida with the energy of a bullet and the lightness of a depressed elephant could feel my body start to, well, leap.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic