The Strange Case of Ballerina/Leap

A few months ago, I saw a trailer for a charming-looking animation called Ballerina. It seemed to be about a young French girl called Felicie who dreamed of being a dancer and went through all the trials and tribulations you’d expect an aspiring young member of that profession to go through. I decided I wanted to see the film, either at the cinema or on DVD and went about the rest of my day.

A little while after that, I saw a poster for a film that looked almost exactly the same as Ballerina but had a different title. This one was called Leap! and the focus no longer seemed to be on Felicie, but the male lead, who, despite his small cameo in the trailer I saw, was front and centre on this poster, sweeping across frame with a pair of wooden wings on his back and the young girl in his arms. This is, in fairness, the same as the French poster (or one of them, here’s a more ballerina-y alternative), but the change of title shifts the entire dynamic. No longer does Felicie seem in control – it seems like she’s being saved as part of some superheroic act on the part of the boy.

As I often do, I had a little moan about this on social media, and did the same today when I spotted an EW story announcing that Kate McKinnon (who, sidenote, is obviously brilliant) had been cast as one of the stars. This in itself is a bizarre situation, as the film (a French Canadian production but in the English language) has already been released in the UK with one set of actors and now seems to be being re-cast for its US release. An odd situation likely driven by a confusion on the part of The Weinstein Company (distributors in the US) as to how to sell the film.

As this is a thorny issue, I want to point out a few things before I get to the main point. I’m not saying that boys can’t or won’t watch a film about a dancer or that boys and men can’t be dancers. As someone who loves musicals and knows every word of every Disney Princess song ever written, I’d positively encourage it. Nor am I saying that a girl can’t or won’t watch a film about a boy with wings saving a girl. The huge female fanbase the Marvel films have proves that the barriers between what we consider ‘a boys’ film’ and what we consider ‘a girls’ film’ are blurring more and more with each year. And that is a very good thing indeed.

However, what I am saying is that it’s important for young girls to see themselves reflected on screen and that a film about a young girl should be marketed as such. Ballerina is a small animation from a little-known foreign studio. Few people are going to actively seek it out, so it relies on the marketing more than many other animations. If a girl goes to the cinema one day and wants to see a film that will speak to her, she’d likely be more won over by Ballerina than Leap!. By skewing so much at young boys, the marketing is creating a barrier between the film and its intended audience – and that’s a real shame for a film that looks like it has the potential to inspire and empower.

What’s more, it sends out an appalling message. “Sorry girls,” the poster for Leap! seems to say. “You and your interests aren’t good enough. Girls and dancing don’t make money. Boys and heroic antics do.” This is a very important issue and one that struck me when I went to a Women in Film panel at a local film festival a few weeks ago. On this panel was director Bronwen Hughes, whose movies include 1996’s Harriet the Spy. She recounted the story of a marketing meeting for the film, where she was told that Harriet would receive a lower marketing budget than a similarly themed film featuring a boy. The reason? Films with boys do better at the box office.

Of course, as Hughes pointed out, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Give a film about a girl less marketing clout and it’ll obviously fare less well at the box office. How can it possibly do anything else? If the boy film is shouting about its existence while the girl film is having to make do with a broken whisper, then it’s perfectly obvious that the boy film will make more money.

By turning Ballerina into Leap!, the film’s marketing brains are playing into that wrong-headed thinking and making it harder for films about young girls for young girls to find their audience and make money. So ultimately we’re going to see less of those films and young girls will struggle to find films that speak to them and their experiences directly. In an age where Rey and Jyn Erso are taking on Empires that’s – gladly – slightly less of an issue than it’s been in the past, but by the same token, it makes the Ballerina/Leap! switch more baffling.

Girls shouldn’t have to seek films like Ballerina out, and films like Ballerina shouldn’t have to morph into something entirely different to reach those girls. The world is changing, and movie marketing needs to replace its outmoded thinking and move with it. Otherwise it won’t be Felicie who needs someone to swoop in and save her; it’ll be the marketers.

Pixar Shorts at Empire Live

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Following the Moana preview, the second event I attended at Empire magazine’s Empire Live was a screening of all Pixar’s theatrically released shorts. I state theatrically released because sadly this didn’t include shorts released as DVD extras, such as Mike’s New Car, Jack-Jack Attack, and Your Friend the Rat. While it would have been amazing to see these shorts as part of the package (especially the inventive Your Friend the Rat and hilarious Jack-Jack Attack), 17 shorts being shown together theatrically for the first time ever is, y’know, pretty good going really. Kudos to the Empire team for getting them.

If you’ve never watched the Pixar shorts together in one go, I suggest you give it a try because it’s a fascinating insight not only into their development as a studio, but computer animation’s development as a medium. From the necessary minimalism of Luxo Jnr to the photo-realism of Piper (which I saw for the first time as part of this package and which had me blinking in disbelief, wondering if it really was animation), Pixar has repeatedly pushed at the boundaries, creating films that not only look great but draw you into their emotions in a way so many features fail to.

The early films (Luxo Jnr, Red’s Dream, Tin Toy, and Knick-Knack) were all directed by John Lasseter, and show huge visual ambition despite the limitations of the tools available. The baby in Tin Toy, for example, may be rudimentary by today’s standards, but it was a huge leap for computer animation back then. There’s also real thematic meat to these shorts, even if they are just a few minutes long. It’s easy now to think of John Lasseter as an executive, but the focus on small worlds hidden from human eyes seen in these early films pre-empts the same worlds we see in Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Cars. Lasseter seems fascinated by the imagination of places and things in the world we see every day but never really see, and he deserves to be studied more closely as a director of great work, rather than simply an over-seer of it.

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Each Pixar short acts, in part, as an animation school because what you’re seeing is directors and animators trying new things. Geri’s Game is a wonderful example. In this charming tale of an old man playing chess with himself, we see a masterclass of character animation as the man acts out his passive and aggressive sides in a thrilling (and funny) duel. For The Birds (a personal favourite) plays on similar ground, pitting a hapless big bird against some nasty smaller ones, while Day and Night (another classic) blends 2D and 3D animation to make a stirring point about our differences and how they make us stronger. Animation is uniquely equipped for such explorations of character, and these shorts play in that area wonderfully well.

Of course, Pixar is always experimenting technically, and that also shows in these shorts. Partly Cloudy shows a mastery of light that still takes my breath away, The Blue Umbrella pushes the envelope on animated realism, and the aforementioned Piper takes that realism to unprecedented levels in both backgrounds and character design. If Piper is anything to go by, pretty soon it’ll be impossible to tell animation from live action, and that’s both thrilling and a little bit terrifying.

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It’s difficult to choose favourites from this wonderful collection, but if I had to pick five they’d be: For the Birds, The Blue Umbrella, Presto, Day and Night and, above all, the utterly incredible La Luna. The latter film blends everything that’s so great about Pixar shorts: staggering beauty, tremendous invention and wordless emotion. These shorts have, for me, become as anticipated as the features they precede, and I hope Pixar (and Disney who produce equally wonderful shorts) continue to celebrate them. They’re incredible pieces of art that live long in the memory.

Moana and Inner Workings at Empire Live

I uhmed and aaahed a fair bit about going to Empire magazine’s Empire Live event. There looked to be a fair few cool events lined up (Pixar shorts marathon? Yes please!), but no big draw that I simply couldn’t miss. Then – hurrah! – a preview of Moana with Q&A by producer Osnat Shurer was announced and I was sold. As a big Disney fan who’s been madly anticipating Moana for a while now, the opportunity was simply too good and gladly it didn’t disappoint.

In a packed hour of goodies, we got the full short that will precede Moana (the superb Inner Workings), some cool featurettes about the crew’s research for the film (holidays trips to the Pacific islands that inspired the film), the Q&A with the wonderful and insightful Shurer, and best of all: five extended clips from the film itself. Considering the picture’s still unfinished, it’s quite a treat to get an insight like this. Indeed, even some of the crew haven’t seen what we saw in the form we saw it today.

I’ll start as the show did: with Inner Workings, which I’d been impressed with from the preview art but which nevertheless has echoes of Pixar’s Inside Out. The link between the two films is unmistakeable, but hardly a problem. Inner Workings is very much its own film: sweet, smart and very very funny. It’s one of the most playful Disney shorts I’ve seen in a while and will make you fall in love with the bladder, the lungs, the heart, and the brain in the way you fall in love with all the great Disney characters.

That’s the core difference between Inside Out and Inner Workings. While Pixar chose to personify emotions, Inner Workings focuses on organs, playing out the tension between the fearful brain and the adventurous heart inside our hero Paul, an office worker who desires a more exciting life than the one he has at Boring Boring and Glum. To say any more would give too much away, but Inner Workings happily sits amongst recent Disney short classics Paperman and Feast, and also contains one of the best urination jokes I’ve seen in a while. That’s an important criteria win. Very important.

Next up Shurer took us through Moana, introducing us to some of the key players and showing featurettes on production and the casting of young Hawaiian newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, who plays Moana. It’s clear from this footage that Disney is very alert to the cultural sensitivites around the film. The featurettes showed how the crew worked with islanders to understand the culture and let it shape the story and characters. For example, Shurer mentioned in the Q&A that after consultation with experts, the previously-bald Maui was given hair. She also revealed that Alan Tudyk (Disney’s current John Ratzenberger good luck charm, who voices the rooster Hei Hei) is the only non-Pacific islander in the film. Quite a feat considering how many characters there seem to be.

This authenticity showed in the clips, which began (fittingly enough) with the film’s opening. An exciting and spectacular piece of work, it shows how Maui broke free from the gods and stole the heart (a precious stone) of a sacred island before being confronted with the incredibly realised lava demon we’ve seen in the trailers. It’s a wonderful opening and confirms what I’ve suspected from the clips we’ve seen so far from Moana: that this is a Princess film wrapped inside an Indiana Jones-esque adventure movie. And it looks all the better for it.

Second was a sneak peek at a scene that’s bound to become iconic. Moana looks like it shares some of The Little Mermaid‘s DNA in so much as Moana has a sense of adventure about her that her father seeks to repress. Her grandmother, however, nurtures it and in the second previee scene, she takes her granddaughter to a secret place on her home island to show her the true nature of her ancestors, who were all voyagers and explorers, just as Moana longs to be.

Cut to a fantastic musical sequence that shows these ancestors travelling across the ocean looking for land set to ‘We Know the Way’, which we’ve heard in the trailers. I’m intrigued to see how it plays in the context of the film and whether it acts as Moana’s ‘I Want’ song. It’d certainly be an interesting departure for Disney to have the ‘I Want’ song sung by someone other than the lead, but it could be quite appropriate and the song itself is undoubtedly good enough to stand among the likes of ‘Part of Your World’ and ‘For the First Time In Forever’.

The latest trailer gave us a glimpse of Moana and Maui’s first meeting and the third clip here extended that. A (not bad but slightly out of place) joke about Tweeting aside, this was a promising piece of footage. So much of Moana looks like it’ll be occupied by Moana and Maui out at sea on their own. The relationship between the two needs to be perfect, and it’s encouraging that Cravalho more than holds her own against Dwayne Johnson, who pitches Maui perfectly as Gaston with more charm and less misogny. I hope the film explores his expectorationg talents.

Clip 4 took us furthest into the film and was also the most action packed. Here we find Maui and Moana under attack by the cute-but-deadly Kamakura, who besiege out heroes on their travels. It’s a sequence full of Disney’s trademark humour, but there’s a scope and sense of adventure to it that’s beyond anything we’ve seen in even the most action-packed Disney animation. I use Indiana Jones as a reference point perhaps because I love Indy and the two share a similar exoticism, but there really is a sense of old-school adventuring to Moana that’s reminding me of the Indy series. It’s great to see Disney moving in that direction, especially in a Princess film.

Finally we saw more typical Princess territory in our introduction to baby Moana. In these scenes, she encounters the ocean and her unique relationship with it for the first time. It’s a cute, emotional moment where the animators have somehow given life to water, as the ocean reaches out to and interacts with Moana, lifting her up and rustling her hair. Considering what I’ve said about modern Disney films and their relationship with magic, in intrigued to see how Moana plays with this relationship and the power Moana has. From what we saw here, I’m expecting something clever and unqiue.

The Q&A followed and while there was nothing especially revelatory (beyond what I’ve already mentioned) it’s clear that Shurer is proud of the film and it was a joy to hear her talking about it. I get the sense that Disney is seeing this as a pretty unique Princess film that reacts to some recent criticism and attempts to build a template for the future. It certainly looks like a promising template and an hour spent in the film’s company has only whetted my appetite further for a film I’m incredibly excited to see.