Review: ‘Leap!’ Starring Elle Fanning, Nat Wolff, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Maddie Ziegler

It’s been a surprisingly good year for animated heroines: Cruz Ramirez was the breakout character of Cars 3, Barbara Gordon was a needed ally in The LEGO Batman Movie, and Lucy’s spy skills came in handy during Despicable Me 3. (It is vaguely depressing that all those films are sequels, but that’s a quibble for another time.) And although Leap! is a fairly formulaic film, it features another solid female character, the plucky wannabe dancer Félicie, voiced with energy and verve by Elle Fanning.

Set in France in the 1880s, Leap! focuses on Félicie, an 11-year-old living in an orphanage in rural Brittany. “Dreams are not reality,” says the nun in charge of the orphanage, but for Félicie and her best friend Victor (voiced by Nat Wolff), practically all they have are their imaginations. Félicie wants to train at the Paris Opera Ballet and Victor wants to be an inventor, and finally, after dozens of escape attempts, they make their way onto a train headed for the city, with no intentions of ever coming back.

When they get to the city, things move quickly—but not necessarily successfully. Victor boasts of a job with Gustave Eiffel, but in reality is cleaning up the Eiffel Tower creator's shop instead of serving as his right-hand man. And things start off bumpy for Félicie, too, who makes a wary ally in the form of ballet cleaning woman Odette (voiced by Carly Rae Jepsen) and an instant enemy in wealthy bully Camille (voiced by Maddie Ziegler). When Camille sneers to Félicie about how she’s expecting an invitation to audition for the ballet, it seems like the end of the orphan’s dreams—until she assumes Camille’s identity and takes her spot.

It’s clear that Félicie is compromising her integrity by lying about who she is and stealing Camille’s opportunity, but it’s also undeniable that she’s really good, with boundless energy and natural talent. Yet her streak of good luck can’t last forever—and when Camille’s mother, who nurses her own grudge against Odette, begins to suspect something, it’s only a matter of time before Félicie’s dreams are put in danger.

Leap! follows a pretty simple formula—the children’s movie blueprint of underdog protagonist + hard work and determination vs. a vaguely classist hierarchy—but the animation during the ballet scenes is lively and well-done. Sometimes, as is often the case with these computer-animated films, certain movements look strange (when Félicie runs, for example, it doesn’t seem like her upper and lower body are moving correctly together), but the training, performances, and an impromptu dance on tabletops in a crowded pub have good rhythm and smooth motion.

Fanning is really the key here. She’s done voice acting before, like in the fantastic Laika film The Boxtrolls, but this performance is less imperious than her Winnie; as Félicie, she effectively transitions between talkative eagerness, spirited self-confidence, and comfortable trust with Victor. The movie doesn’t let her linger in self-doubt very long, and it’s best for young female viewers that Leap! refuses to beat her up too much. She makes a mistake and she gets a chance to set it right, and the straightforward ethics of that situation are nicely handled.

Leap! doesn’t reinvent the formula of this genre in any way, and it still falls into traps like a romantic love triangle and a villain who careens fully into unhinged, maniacal behavior. But it’s spirited enough to keep it from feeling too familiar.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Guttenbergs