When Eric Summer and Éric Warin’s animation Ballerina begins, you wouldn’t be blamed for wanting to get up and leave after five minutes. A cheaply devised opening act that introduces what appears to be the most infuriatingly optimistic of protagonists should set the precedence for a film that continues in such an unbearable fashion, but as we progress the unwavering enthusiasm of the lead role becomes somewhat infectious, and as she grows on us, in turn so does the movie, and by the end it’s hard not to be caught up in the charm of this enchanting piece of cinema.
Set in 1879, the aforementioned character is Félicie Milliner (Elle Fanning), an orphan who wants nothing more than to escape to Paris and fulfil her dreams of becoming a ballerina. Alongside her best friend Victor (Dane DeHaan), the pair find themselves in the capital, and Félicie adopts the identity of somebody else to ensure she is able to undertake lessons at the prestigious Grand Opera house, and under the guidance of cleaner, and former dancer, Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen) she strives to be in contention in the forthcoming production of The Nutcracker – but she’s going to have to work tremendously hard to improve her skills, and all the while avoid being caught out for being somebody she isn’t.
Despite complaining about the lack of quality in the film’s opening moments, it’s hard not to think, narratively speaking, that the scenes at the orphanage could have been prolonged, to set up the story, the characters, and help us understand why they’re so desperate to flee for Paris – taking a leaf out of the book of Oliver, in that regard. Please sir, can we have some more build up?
That being said, upon their arrival to the city the visual experience improves drastically, for 19th century Paris makes for a truly beautiful setting, and the ballet compliments it well, as the grace and elegance of the performance dance translates well, while you feel that the filmmakers have paid close attention to the technique, crafting such sequences in a meticulous, realistic way. It is a shame, however, that the setting is not enriched by a classic score, instead using contemporary music, really terrible pop numbers that seem so at odds with the romantic, historical period being depicted. The film would only be more timeless if the filmmakers avoided modern music too, as the likes of Jacques Brel or Charles Trenet would have fitted the tone nicely and given this production more life further down the line.
Music aside, Ballerina does thrive in tradition, following a formula that works – from the orphaned protagonist, to the trainer who used to be professional before her injury, all the tropes we’ve seen countless times before, but they work for a reason. They fit in nicely within a film that effectively preaches the message that we can be whatever we want to be if we just try hard enough (and steal someone else’s identity). Ain’t that nice – just before Christmas as well.