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Like its protagonist, Ballerina has passion but no technique

Elle Fanning voices Félicie in Ballerina.

1.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Éric Summer, Carol Noble and Laurent Zeitoun
Directed by
Éric Summer and Éric Warin
Dane DeHaan, Elle Fanning and Carly Rae Jepsen

Over the past few years, there has been a refreshing trend in animated movies aimed at children: They're getting more socially conscious. Last year's Zootopia was a parable for racism and xenophobia. Frozen had a Prince Charming fake-out and focused instead on the relationship between two sisters. Moana is about an independent young woman and doesn't contain a trace of a romantic relationship.

And then there's Ballerina, a regressive mess whose initial aesthetic promise is ruined by a convoluted plot and casually misogynistic writing.

The movie opens with jarring dissonance as the camera sweeps through the beautiful French countryside to land on a 19th-century orphanage, while a bland modern-day pop song plays. While the rest of the orphans march glumly around the grounds, Félicie (voiced by Elle Fanning), a spirited redhead, dances across the roof of the building, much to the chagrin of the villainous, cross-eyed head of the orphanage.

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Félicie dreams of becoming a ballet dancer, and her best friend Victor (voiced by an annoyingly manic Dane DeHaan) wants to be an inventor. They have a plan to sneak out of the orphanage and run away to Paris immediately to pursue their dreams. In Paris, Félicie wanders the streets until she comes upon the Paris Opera, befriends a mysterious cleaning woman (singer-songwriter Carly Rae Jepsen, whose voice acting in this role is surprisingly subtle and charming) and secures a spot in a prestigious dance class by pretending to be Camille, the daughter of a snooty restaurateuse (who bears a striking resemblance to Cinderella's evil stepmother).

Félicie has passion and energy, but no technique, so she undergoes Karate Kid-style training at the hands of that mysterious cleaning woman, who was a prima ballerina before an injury destroyed her career. Meanwhile, Victor, who's an office boy for Gustave Eiffel (these orphans don't kid around with their dreams), turns out to have been secretly in love with Félicie all this time, and is a real brat about it, especially when Félicie starts to date a romantic-but-obviously-bad-news Russian dancer at her school.

Ballerina's follow-your-dreams, don't-trust-Russian-hunks message is rendered empty by this lame romantic plot line between Félicie and Victor, who is a classic toxic "nice guy" and gets angry with Félicie when she initially doesn't return his feelings. But then he saves her life from the snooty restaurateuse who is so furious that Félicie is a better dancer than her own daughter that she tries to throw Félicie – a child – off the still-in-progress Statue of Liberty in Eiffel's studio. (I told you it was convoluted.)

Victor is rewarded with a kiss on the cheek before Félicie runs onstage to fulfill her dream of dancing at the Paris Opera. And then comes the worst part, the most baffling and infuriating final line of dialogue I have ever heard. As we see Félicie take the stage, the music swells, and Victor says this, essentially reducing the ballerina in Ballerina into an object to be possessed: "That really is my girlfriend."

It's a shame, because at its best, Ballerina has a sly playfulness that could have blossomed into genuine heart if the writing were more thoughtful. The scenic designs of late-19th-century Paris, including a half-built Eiffel Tower, are gorgeous. The nods to The Karate Kid are odd but funny. The animated dancing, motion-captured from former Opéra de Paris stars Aurélie Dupont and Jérémie Bélingard, is beautifully rendered.

At one point, Félicie's ballet teacher tells her that she has "the energy of a bullet" but no technique or focus; the same is true of Ballerina itself.

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