Ballerina (2016)

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“Never give up on your dreams.”

Directed by Eric Summer, Éric Warin
Starring Elle Fanning, Dane DeHaan, Maddie Ziegler, Carly Rae Jepsen

The year is 1887 (or 1888; I’m working from how complete the Eiffel Tower is,) and plucky Bretton orphan Felicie (Fanning) dreams of being a dancer in the Parisian ballet. Running away from the orphanage in the company of fellow orphan, inventor and creepy nice guy Victor (DeHaan), she is promptly separated from her stalker, finds the opera and stumbles into a) helping the academy’s cleaner, Odette (Jepsen), and b) a place in the training class, the latter by stealing the identity of standard issue horrible rich brat Camille (Ziegler).

With the help of Odette, who knows a surprising amount of ballet, Felicie channels her natural grace and Breton folk-dancing chops to become the Lindsey Stirling of the opera class, but when Camille’s mother rumbles her she is pushed into a battle for her future: Make the cut for the new production of The Nutcracker or leave. Despite meteoric progress, she blows her chance by bunking off before the big audition, and is further distracted when entitled, gloriously becheekboned dancer Prince Russian Guy and Victor have a dick measuring contest over which of them is right for her.

Packed off to the orphanage, she escapes again, this time with the aid of the orphanage director, who turns out to admire her guts. Accepting a place as a cleaner, she stumbles into one last face off with Camille and wins the part through sheer guts, only to face the twin spectres of a psychotic, sledgehammer-wielding dance mom and creepy Victor’s inability to accept a platonic friendship.

What’s wrong with it?

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Run, Felicie! Just run!

I actually thought the film was going to get a save until the last moment, when it turns out that, no, Victor has learned nothing and still thinks that he deserves to ‘get’ Felicie in exchange for being her friend.

There’s something very… poppy about the dancing, at least to this untrained eye. It’s choreographed and mo-capped by real ballet dancers, so maybe it’s just the animation, or maybe ballet has got with the times, but it looks a lot more like a Lindsey Stirling video than the performances in Black Swan.

Speaking of, there was a lot of brouhaha about Natalie Portman’s dance double and outrage at the suggestion that Portman could have trained to professional standard in a year. I can only imagine what these critics will think of Felicie’s progress, which seems to have reached national performance standard in a matter of weeks, which suggests that ballet training is as swift and simple as learning to be a world-class martial artist in the Arrowverse.

The sudden escalation from political/financial/gastronomic manipulation to attempted sledgehammer murder is pretty disorienting, and left my little girl in confused tears.

What’s right with it?

Ballerina is a peppy, pacy, feel-good movie with a load of good bits and some wonderful, heartfelt performances from unexpected quarters (seriously, Carly Rae Jepsen. Who knew?) For all the tears, my little girl came out of this with a renewed enthusiasm for her ballet practice and that’s got to be worth something.

The film also looks great. 1880s Paris is stunning and the dance, authentic or not, is breathtaking.

Felicie is a genuinely appealing lead, enough so that I truly feel that she deserves better friends than Victor.

I like that, by the end of the film, Camille has recognised her failings and become a better person. Too often the wicked stepsister type is depicted as driven by their mother’s malice, but then falls by the side of the road and no-one looks back, leaving one to assume that they go on to be a wicked stepmother in their turn. Instead, Felicie offers a hand and Camille accepts it, even trying to prevent the impending sledgehammer murder.

How bad is it really?

The film has one glaring flaw (Victor) and tells a pretty stock tale, but does so gorgeously and with a lot of energy and humour.

Best bit (if such there is)?

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I’ll be honest, the action of this scene is just part of its appeal, which is really down to one of the other students running into the hall and hollering ‘BATTLE!’ when it kicks off.

Camille, unable to achieve the required emotionality in her technically perfect performance, tries to vent her frustration on Felicie as the latter is cleaning the stage. The two square off on the stage before launching into a pop-rock scored dance battle, which forms the emotional and choreographic climax of the movie.

What’s up with…?

  • The love triangle? It’s as tacked on as any I’ve seen, and just really quite creepy in such a peppy film. It also fails to ever address the fact that clearly Felicie isn’t in the dating place, whatever certain men in her life feel should be the case.

Ratings

Production values – Especially for an animated feature from a smaller house, Ballerina is bloody gorgeous to look upon, and converts real-life dancing into animation with astonishing smoothness. 4
Dialogue and performances – The dialogue is reasonably engaging and yet wholly forgettable, but played with a surprising depth of emotion from a young cast, including some much better known musically. 7
Plot and execution – The central story of Ballerina is a pretty well-trod road, but despite the incredible rapidity of Felicie’s progression in ballet it does hail the virtues of hard work and heart, and the reversal at the second act’s close ensures that Felicie’s triumph is due to her ability and effort, not her chance act of identity theft. 7
Randomness – The film walks a familiar road, but does not attempt to liven things up with left-field bizareness. Apart from Victor’s ongoing attempts to build a hang glider. Or the sledgehammer murder. Or the hang glider escape from the sledgehammer murder. 7
Waste of potential – The Guardian suggested that the film could have stood to be a little more like Black Swan. I’m not sure how much exploration of the reptilian underbelly of the artistic soul a largely pre-teen audience is truly ready for, but there could definitely have been a little more substance, and I really, really wanted Victor to get the point that a girl can be a friend, and if you want more then maybe talk about your feelings rather than fixing a music box and getting into a punch up with a Russian. 10

Overall 35%

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2 thoughts on “Ballerina (2016)”

  1. I just took my son to see this film today and I absolutely loved it. I largely agree with the review but I feel I have a small insight to offer.

    Regarding Victor’s inability to accept a platonic relationship. To me it seemed quite clear that the film was written with young girls as the target audience, although my little lad did cry when the triangle ‘stopped being friends’, so I believe he was reasonably invested.

    Assuming this, it’s easy to understand that this topic would have been covered as a matter of awareness for the young female audience, i.e. young men may want more than friendship and some might not even want the friendship, without going deeper into the subject to explore Victor’s emotions from confusion and disappointment to jealousy, and how they could be successfully be rationalised into a deeper and healthier relationship.

    They certainly missed a trick here; even without widening the target audience to young boys struggling to understand new emotions and learning to become decent men, young girls could benefit from understanding boys better in order to fend off social pressures to grow up too quickly; the film’s central theme of pursuing a dream in the face of adversity and distraction is also one which I think is laudable and feeds back into the former topic; boys also could have gained a lesson in empathy from this film, in understanding that the lead character Felicie is simply not looking for a relationship and to have asked the question was selfish and damaging in itself.

    Having said all that, I’m only a young parent and I have no idea when these discussions will arise but I’m sure that girls aged 5-8 will benefit from having taken one less lesson from this film and gained an extra ounce of enjoyment in its place.

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