Mark Reviews Movies

Long Way North


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Rémi Chayé

Cast: The voices of Chloé Dunn, Vivienne Vermes, Peter Hudson, Anthony Hickling, Tom Perkins, Geoffrey Greenhill, Claire Harrison-Bullett, Bibi Jacob, Martin Lewis, Tom Morton, Leslie Clack, Kester Lovelace, Damian Corcoran

MPAA Rating: PG (for some peril and mild language)

Running Time: 1:21

Release Date: 9/30/16 (limited); 12/16/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 16, 2016

By certain standards, the story of Long Way North might feel quaint. It's an old-fashioned adventure tale, in which a group of rugged seafarers must brave the elements and fight their own natures in order to discover what amounts to a lost treasure.

The film, set within the final decades of the Russian Empire, is also a coming-of-age tale of sorts, because one of those sailors is a teenager who has never experienced anything like this. There are two things about the young protagonist that make this aspect of the story somewhat unique. First, she is a teenage girl, who is immediately deemed unfit for sea by the salty sailors who could help her. Second, she is either the final or penultimate generation of the Russian aristocracy. She has no way of knowing what will come in a few decades, but in terms of socioeconomic status, she accidentally puts herself ahead of the curve of history by acclimating herself to a class well below the one in which she was raised.

This isn't a political film, except in those broad strokes of the difference between Sacha's (voice of Chloé Dunn) life before setting out on her journey and how she lives by adapting to the ways of a lower economic class. The film doesn't even come from the country where it is set. It's a French and Danish production (released in the United States in an English-language dub), directed by Rémi Chayé in a style that depicts neither lines nor borders. That's not referencing the narrative or its thematic undercurrents. The film's art style literally omits the outlines of its characters and backdrops. Chayé and the animation team basically construct the entire thing out of colors and the rigid shapes that those colors take.

It's a striking approach, like a stricter sort of Impressionism in which the shapes do not have outlines yet also do not bleed together in any way. It's beautiful to look at during the film's opening scenes of aristocrat splendor, and as Sacha makes her way farther from her home and further away from her privileged life, it grows earthier, looking somehow less defined but more natural. By the time the story reaches the chilly waters and frozen ice structures of the Arctic, the film is so starkly white, alternating between the blur of snow and the severe points of glaciers, that one can almost feel the deathly cold.

Sacha is fascinated by exploring because her grandfather Oloukine (voice of Geoffrey Greenhill) was a famed explorer whose final mission was to take an icebreaker to the North Pole. Two years after he and his crew departed from Saint Petersburg, Oloukine has not returned. After multiple searches have resulted in nothing, everyone assumes he has died, sinking an "unsinkable" and very expensive ship in the process.

Sacha is convinced that her grandfather is still alive, and after finding some of his notes in his study, she is certain that the rescue and retrieval missions have been looking in the wrong place. No one believes her, so she sets off on her own to the north, looking for a ship that can take her the way Oloukine went toward the North Pole.

The first major hiccup in her plan comes when she arrives at a port. A ship is ready to depart, but Larson (voice of Anthony Hickling), the first mate, is a bit of a con man who takes Sacha's prized earrings as a fee. The ship departs without Sacha, so she remains with Olga (voice Vivienne Vermes), a waitress at the local inn, from whom she learns how to deal with a bunch as rowdy as Larson and the rest of his crew. Upon the ship's return months later, Captain Lund (voice of Peter Hudson), Larson's older and more responsible brother, reluctantly agrees to take Sacha with them on their next voyage, since Larson betrayed her trust before.

The screenplay (written by Claire Paoletti and Patricia Valeix, with Fabrice de Costil) condenses Sacha's change from the debutante daughter of nobles into a strong-willed young woman and an able sailor with a series of challenges—from as simple as putting up with a guy throwing a glass of wine in her face because he ordered beer to as vital as saving the day when a storm strikes the ship at sea with her quick study of knot-tying. There isn't much to Sacha—or any of these figures—as a character (She has a one-track mind—to find her grandfather and restore honor to her family—no matter what changes she may go through), but this is a story of adaptation and survival. She exists, not to have any real depth, but to endure, change, and persevere.

The obstacles grow more treacherous as the journey progresses, and there are some fantastic setpieces involving the crew trying to maneuver through sheets of ice and to confront the effects of a glacial avalanche (The way the ship is tossed around like a toy boat by the force of the collapse is a bit terrifying). The final stage of the journey focuses on the physical and psychological toll of being stranded and facing almost certain death. The crew's struggles are finally juxtaposed with the haunting image of a man, frozen by the elements with a look of contentment forever locked on his face.

It's rough and tough stuff, despite the lovely lure of the film's aesthetic and its occasional forays into kid-friendly material (a bird poop joke here and a couple of cute dogs there). Long Way North provides a visually arresting adventure that's further aided by a resilient protagonist who overcomes much more than the elements to become a hero.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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