Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Movie Review: Ballerina (2017)



It’s animated. It’s French. It’s about ballet. Don’t really need to wax poetic on this one, so let’s get right into it. This is Ballerina, or Leap! as it will be retitled for the U.S. release in a few months.


The plot: In 19th century France, orphan girl Félicie (Elle Fanning) hopes to escape the orphanage and go to Paris to become a ballerina. With the help of her best friend and hopeful inventor Victor (Dane DeHaan), they makes their way to Paris. As they chase their respective dreams, with Félicie accepting help from Odette (Carly Rae Jepson), a caretaker at the Paris Opera Ballet school, she finds herself fighting against rival dancer Camille (Maddie Ziegler) and her mother Regine (Julie Khaner) to keep her dream alive.

The cast here, even with how surprising voice casts can get with animated features, is definitely up there in terms of people I was never expecting to be in a film like this. Elle Fanning makes sense, given the fairy tale undertones of the story, and she does well as the optimistic dreamer main character. DeHaan, on the other hand, as the bumbling inventor? After seeing him play the dark and moody loner in films like Chronicle and Amazing Spider-Man 2, seeing this lighter side of the same coin is a bit off-putting but, again, he does well with it. Ziegler plays bratty petulance alright, even if it isn’t entirely entertaining to watch, and Khaner wears her Mom from Futurama hairstyle with pure contempt oozing out of her voice. But it’s the role of Odette, Félicie’s eventual tutor and caretaker, that threw me off the most. Remember this obnoxious earworm from a few years back? Well, get used to that voice because Carly Rae is playing Odette. Admittedly, I didn’t pick up on it while watching it, and she is pretty good in her role as the vaguely tragic mentor figure, but since learning that, I can’t help but recall her acting with badly synthesized strings.

We’re dealing with a rare outsider in terms of feature-length animation, this time with French company L’Atelier. Comparisons to the Hollywood bigwigs feels a bit predictable, but this film honestly does quite well at standing out on its own. The character designs may be a little too cartoonish for a story that is this ultimately grounded, but the detailing put into the textures we see is genuinely quite impressive. It has that same effect as The LEGO Movie, where on closer inspection you can make out little markings that give more of a tangible feel. Attention to detail was certainly going to be a major component of the film, as animated dancing takes considerate effort to look realistic, especially when it comes to something as precise and graceful as ballet. In that regard, L’Atelier do a capital job with the dance sequences and training montages, bringing a certain serenity to the screen that we’re honestly not getting much of nowadays. Sure, you’ve got Laika’s output that shows how patience can yield great results, but otherwise it’s a very hyperactive scene at the moment. Stuff like this has quite a lot of visual merit to it.

Once we get into the writing, though, things start to turn sour and it all starts with this film’s sense of humour. Modern animated films that tout themselves as being family-friendly have a certain… fixation, shall we say, on slapstick and bodily function jokes. Now, I prescribe to the notion that any joke, no matter how juvenile or boundary-pushing, can be told well and these sorts of jokes shouldn’t just be dismissed outright. However, it becomes a problem here once it becomes apparent how the jokes are being used: Pretty damn clumsily. We have Victor bumbling around Paris and crashing into pretty much everything, and that fits in well enough with the tone(?) of the film, but more times than not, the humour feels out-of-place. When Félicie and Victor first arrive in Paris, they are in a fruit crate and end up having to open it from the inside after Victor farts in it; this leads to the initial “Wow, we’re finally here” establishing shot of the city. Jarring is putting it lightly, and the way it keeps being implemented into the story feels forced; it’s like they had to make these jokes and just crammed them into the story wherever they could.

Then again, the story is nothing to write home about to begin with. There’s nothing technically wrong with it, as it’s serviceable enough in how it frames Félicie’s progress as a dancer against the obstacles in her way. It isn’t all that impressive though, and that ultimately comes down to a pretty basic factor: The one-note and extremely bland characters. Félicie is the plucky orphan, Victor is a bumbling tinkerer who is stuck in the friend zone, Odette is the older mentor with a tragic past (that is literally explained as “she was performing and there was a fire” and that’s all we get), Camille is the bitter rival who has no redeeming factors whatsoever and her mother Regine is about as subtle as a Bond villain; the hairdo like Mom from Futurama doesn’t help that. The characters are based on archetypes that we have seen many, many times before, except here there’s no spice to them to make them palatable. Because of this, and combined with how straight-forward the plot is, it doesn’t register much of a reaction aside from mild boredom.

All in all, there is some definite merit to this as a visual work, as its animation and genuine finesse in the dance sequences make for a nice counterpoint to the usual brightly-coloured and bouncy animation scene of today. However, the writing ends up letting it down with a fairly basic plot and some thematically anorexic characters that just smack of what I’ve seen many, many times before. Since this largely falls into the area of dull rather than flat-out annoying, it ranks higher than Middle School; it may not have a singular moment as good as Alexa Nisenson’s emotional outpouring, but it holds up better overall. However, since this film pretty much failed to make a proper emotional connection with me, it ranks lower than Jackie.

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