Often, while I'm watching a film that isn't going so well, I can't help but root for things to get better. I felt that way during most of "Leap!", the French-Canadian animated film originally released last year under the title "Ballerina". The Weinstein Co. is distributing the English-language version in the U.S. which includes, not only the new title and a new voice cast, but a modern soundtrack.
"Leap!" is set in the late 1800s. Young friends Felicie and Victor (voiced by Elle Fanning and Nat Wolff) escape from their orphanage and head to Paris (where, among other things, the Eiffel Tower is under construction). Felicie has always dreamed of being a ballet dancer, while Victor's goal is to become a famous inventor. They both quickly find opportunities in the City of Light. Victor gets a job (far down the ladder) working for the man building the Statue of Liberty.
But "Leap!" is Felicie's story. She makes her way into a prestigious dance academy (posing as a different girl). Soon she's in contention for the prime role in the holiday production of "The Nutcracker".
Unfortunately, "Leap!" starts-off on the wrong foot, with an over-the-top first act. The Victor character is way too goofy, and his tone never changes over the course of the movie. Several other supporting players provide that poorly written, direct-to-DVD animated character vibe, including Victor's work buddy and a brash, young male dancer who's out to charm Felicie.
Kate McKinnon voices three characters, primarily Regine, the evil mother of a rival ballerina. Mel Brooks is the voice of one of the heads of the orphanage. His purpose, eventually, is to inject some important messages to this adventure story.
But instead of being inspiring, the tone throughout most of "Leap!" is silly. The animation is passable (Felicie is by far the best looking character), but the English dubbing is not up to today's standards.
The strength of the film is the mature dynamic between Felicie and Odette, a former professional dancer who becomes Felicie's teacher. Carly Rae Jepsen does terrific voice work as Odette. These two have an authentic, believable relationship. Jensen also provides a few songs to the soundtrack, along with Demi Lovato and Sia. In a film this light there's no reason to complain about pop music sharing the stage with a 19th century story.
The themes are simple but effective for the target demo: 5-10 year old girls obsessed with dancing, ballet and performing (and there are plenty of them in the world). Though not packed with wall-to-wall dance sequences, there are more than enough scenes involving pointe shoes and pirouettes to keep them happy. For everyone else, this is a low-tier animated effort that never rises above the ordinary.