Little Orphan Annie. Anne Of Green Gables. Madeline. Why are there so many stories about plucky little orphan girls with red hair? Is the fiery colour of their heads supposed to represent the fire of their personality? Or is it just because red hair tends to stand out, thus clearly marking anyone with it as a protagonist?
Regardless, there’s a new member of the Scarlet-Haired Sorority in town. Meet Felicie Milliner, a young French girl confined to a stuffy orphanage in 19th-century France. Felicie, however, has big ambitions to become a prima ballerina in the Paris Opera House.
Her quest to achieve her dancing goals is the plot of Ballerina, a computer-animated comedy adventure directed by Eric Summer and Eric Warin. This French-Canadian film has a rather predictable storyline, and often tries too hard to be funny; its quality, however, is bolstered by interesting characters and some rather charming scenes.
Ballerina opens with a bang: tired of life in the orphanage, Felicie runs away with her friend Victor, a fellow orphan with dreams of becoming a Leonardo da Vinci-esque inventor. The two head to the City of Lights, and promptly get separated, with Felicie ending up in an audition to become a dancer in the town’s production of Swan Lake.
She meets a colourful group of characters including Odette, a cleaner with a mysterious past, and Camille, an super-kiasu ingenue who will crush anyone who stands in the way of her ballet dreams. And of course there’s the flamboyant Merante, choreographer extraordinaire, who seems to be some distant French relation of American Idol’s Simon Cowell. Every lesson, the worst dancer in his class will be eliminated: which means an end to Felicie’s dreams if she doesn’t get good soon.
Ballerina plays as The Karate Kid mixed with So You Can Think You Dance, centring on Felicie’s quest for success. What’s particularly refreshing is that our main character is not portrayed as some gifted prodigy or Chosen One – she achieves what she can through pure dedication and hard work. Which is a pretty good message.
Storywise, there’s little in Ballerina you wouldn’t find in your standard Enid Blyton book, but the film is still quite entertaining. It certainly looks nice. Its depictions of old Paris are wonderful, and the characters are animated quite well, none of that Uncanny Valley creepy effect you get with realistic-looking characters in budget animation.
The film’s plot takes an odd turn towards the end: it builds up to a natural climax, which it executes quite well. And then it suddenly moves to a jarring and over-the-top second climax set on a famous monument. It was almost as if the writers suddenly grew weary of all the film’s dancing, and decided to turn the final act into Mission: Impossible just for giggles.
The characters are mainly archetypes: the competitive rival, the dance mum from hell, the perfectionist choreographer, etc etc, but the film does take time to give everyone decent backstories. There are some nice little moments here and there; a scene with Merante recalling his memories of Odette is rather moving.
Ballerina’s major letdown, however, is its humour: there is a funny line or two, but characters spend most of the time making wisecracks that never quite hit their mark. And Victor, portrayed as a klutz, is often the victim of ridiculous slapstick situations that come across as more annoying than funny. The film’s methods of separating him and Felice are painfully contrived, too. Perhaps there is a movie out there called Inventor, which shows what he is doing with his inventions while Felice is off dancing?
As expected, there are quite a few dance scenes. These are done well, generally speaking, with the film actually hiring choreographers for them. Yet somehow, watching CGI characters perform a ballet is just not as magical as watching human dancers in action. Not the film’s fault, but what a pity. Ballerina had Maddie Ziegler, a remarkably talented young dancer (who you might remember from Sia’s music videos Chandelier and Elastic Heart) in its cast; watching her actually perform the routines in the film would be quite amazing.
The voice cast does a good job. Elle Fanning and Dane DeHaan nail Felicie and Victor, while Terence Scammel adds a nice air of haughtiness and exasperation to Merante’s creative insults. Pop star Carly Rae Jepsen infuses the conflicted Odette with a believable world-weariness, and it’s nice to see that her voice is not just good for bubblegum pop hits! They might call her maybe for future voice roles.
Overall, this film will probably be most enjoyed by kids, especially those harbouring dreams of becoming the next Margot Fonteyn or Mikhail Baryshnikov. (Or Michael Jackson!) Adults, on the other hand, will probably enjoy how cute everything looks.
Ballerina is a tribute to the passion and perseverance required to excel in any art. It’s also a nice reminder that without ballet, life is basically pointe-less.
Directors: Eric Summer and Eric Warin
Voice cast: Elle Fanning, Dane DeHaan, Maddie Ziegler, Carly Rae Jepsen