Paris’s 19th-century cityscape has ignited filmmaker’s imaginations for decades. Everything from “Charade” to “Rush Hour 3” have used the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame cathedral to add glamour to their stories. A new film, “Ballerina” does as well, but with a twist. Instead of real locations the story showcases the City of Lights with state-of-the-art animation.
Set in the 1880’s, Elle Fanning voices Félicie Milliner, an 11-year-old orphaned girl from rural Brittany with dreams of becoming a ballerina dancing in her head. She has no training but her will is string and soon she and her inventor friend Victor (Dane DeHaan) make their way to la Ville des Lumières. Using a bit of trickery—she assumes the identity of the snobby Camille Le Haut (Maddie Ziegler)—Félicie gets the chance to audition for the Paris Opera Ballet. Tough times follow as her lack of experience slows her progress. “You have the energy of bullet,” says the dance master, “but the lightness of a depressed elephant.” It’s only with the help of Victor and mentor Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), a former prima ballerina turned cleaning lady, that Félicie gets the gumption to follow her dream and win the role of dancing the role of Clara in The Nutcracker.
Part “Cinderella” and part “The Karate Kid,” “Ballerina” feels like less than the sum of its parts. Like it’s “never give up” message the movie feels generic. The animation is fine, occasionally beautiful, but the character work and storytelling is strictly by the book. Standard-issue pop songs litter the soundtrack, providing Félicie with a chance to indulge her passion, although much of the ballet dancing is fetishized to such an extent it often looks more like martial arts than ballet.
“Ballerina” feels second tier. From the predictable story to that most 90s of showdowns—the dance off—it feels lazy, as though it is content to not only borrow from, but also sit in the shadow of Pixar, Dreamworks or Disney.