Anyone who’s ever dreamed of tutus, tights and toe shoes will likely get a kick out of “Leap!” But the Weinstein Company’s first animated film under the Mizchief banner — the tale of a determined 11-year-old orphan named Felicie (voiced with girlish pluck by Elle Fanning) pursuing ballet in 1879 Paris — is more of a hop than a grand jete in an already competitive cartoon arena. When it comes to quality, you can’t kid a kid, many of whom have been exposed to such sophisticated recent fare as “Zootopia,” “Moana” and “Inside Out” (not to mention those glorified Lego ads posing as feature films).
That said, “Leap!” is a step up from Weinstein’s “Shrek”-on-a-budget “Hoodwinked” films, and it makes the most of its distinctly Old World aesthetic and enticing character design. The usually teeming City of Light, however, seems eerily underpopulated and hushed, save for the main characters, with the animators saving most of their visual magic for delicate lighting effects and soaring rooftop scenes in which Felicie tries out her improvised dance moves, while her pal and fellow orphan Victor (Nat Wolff), a would-be inventor, tests out his pair of mechanical wings.
Where “Leap!” stumbles most is in the story, which is beholden to every underdog tale ever, including “The Karate Kid.” Like other parentless urchins before them, Felicie and Victor — who long to make their way in the outside world — stage an antic escape from their rural orphanage, overseen by a bulbous toad of a man with massive mutton chops (Mel Brooks’s voice, minus the Brooklyn intonations).
When they arrive in Paris, Victor finds a lowly job with engineer Gustave Eiffel, who is in the midst of creating his namesake tower. Meanwhile, Felicie finagles her way into the Opera Ballet School by impersonating a snotty rich girl named Camille (Maddie Ziegler), who has intentionally broken Felicie’s cherished music box.
Yet the maestro has little faith in the abilities of the untrained Felicie, who has, as he puts it, “the energy of a bullet and the lightness of a depressed elephant.” As he searches for his Clara for a production of “The Nutcracker,” our heroine finds an unlikely mentor in a lame cleaning woman with a secret past (played by singer Carly Rae Jepson, who provides a surprisingly warm and dramatic vocal presence). The true beating heart of “Leap!” can be found in their touching relationship as the film winds its way toward a climactic dance-off.
For whatever reason, jarring anachronisms abound. Felicie dons denim hot pants at one point, and Camille’s nasty stage mother (Kate McKinnon, who also voices two other parts) actually says, “It’s hammer time.” The sonnet on the Statue of Liberty is referenced, years before it was written. And there are two fart jokes — just because. But don’t fret, parents. Your tween will probably be too busy humming along to the soundtrack’s girl-power pop tunes, by Jepsen and Sia, to notice.
PG. At area theaters. Contains some impolite humor and action. 89 minutes.