The Canadian-French animated co-production Ballerina (which will make its debut south of the border later in the spring under the title Leap!, and comes to English speaking Canada in a dubbed version different from the French release late last year) is a nice film about nice things. It isn’t original or challenging, and it can’t even get period details right, which could make Ballerina easy to pick on for a critic (and indeed, I do know some who have). Then you realize that this is a solid enough tale of believing in yourself, learning the benefits of hard work, learning when to trust your gut and when to listen to others, and persevering even when things seem impossible, and that it’s also a film aimed at the 4-12 year old demographic and not a middle aged or millennial aged film critic. By those standards, Ballerina might even be better than it has to be.
Félicie (voiced in the English language dub by Elle Fanning) is an orphaned little girl from the French countryside who dreams of becoming, you guessed it, a dancer. The only problem is that she has no technical skills when it comes to dancing, and she just kind of flails around with more heart and energy than knowledge. She dreams of escaping the orphanage, and with the help of her friend Victor (Dane DeHaan, giving literally and figuratively his most animated performance), who dreams of being an inventor, she does just that. They make their way to Paris where Félicie hopes to enroll in the national ballet company. She discovers that it’s tougher than it looks, and that she doesn’t yet have the skills to dance on such a level. To get into the school, she impersonates and deceptively takes the spot of a spoiled, bullying rich kid (Maddie Ziegler, best known for her work in Sia’s music videos, and quite good here) with a wickedly evil mother (Canadian actress Julie Khaner). Félicie finds a coach and mentor in the form of Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), a once great ballerina turned sullen, borderline cripple housekeeper for the rich girl and her nasty mom.
Ballerina is pretty much every inspirational movie rolled into one, and directors Eric Summer and Éric Warin follow the Rocky template every step of the way. There are plenty of showdowns between heroes and villains. There are a couple of training montages, some motivational speeches, and everything happens exactly as one expects it to. We learn just enough about these characters to care about them. The animation is serviceable enough, with nice attention to small details even if it completely ignores how Paris would have looked in the late 19th century (if that’s even when this is supposed to take place) and some solid, if unexceptional character design. The dubbing is less than seamless, but that’s not much of a shock. When you see a film like Ballerina as a critic, you have to know on some level what you’re getting into, and just because you aren’t surprised and shocked by something doesn’t mean it has been made without thought and care, even something as clichéd as this.
I’d be upset, but it’s made very clear from the fast paced, no nonsense opening what the point of Ballerina is. Yes, it’s aiming low, and no, adults probably won’t get much out of it, but so what? It’s emphatically not a movie for adults, but the kids watching it at the promotional screening I attended were into it and consistently engaged. These days if a kid doesn’t pull out a parent’s cell phone or tablet during a movie to play games on it, I take that as a sign that a kids’ flick is doing an okay job. I understand that this is also a low bar to clear, but when it comes to this kind of film in the digital age, I’ll take it.
I was caught up in Ballerina and found it enjoyable in the moment, even if I was never blown away by it or in awe of what it was trying to accomplish. It’s pretty much a straight line of a film. This review could be seen as a mild pass, but then again, it’s a mild film. It’s inoffensive, knows what its goals are, and it doesn’t go on too long. It’s not worth praising to any great degree, but it’s also too innocuous and well meaning to slam. I have seen this same plot for a movie over a hundred times in my lifetime, and I will see films like this at least a hundred more, but that 4-year-old over there hasn’t, and darn it, he might actually like this one. We all have to start somewhere.