‘Long Way North’: Film Review

Long Way North Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Shout! Factory Films

Long Way North Still - Publicity - H 2016

Stunning stylized visuals, girl power and a strong rooting interest fuel a wonderfully old-fashioned tale.

A French animated drama set in the 1880s follows the death-defying Arctic adventures of a teen girl from the Russian aristocracy.

Exquisitely unfashionable, the hand-drawn animated feature Long Way North uses a striking minimalist visual scheme to tell the rousing story of a 19th century girl’s daring Arctic quest. Kids used to shiny, busy cartoons might take a while to attune themselves to the straightforward storytelling and full-blooded characters. But director Rémi Chayé’s first feature brings geography and history to vivid life, and it’s hard not to be moved by the determination of 15-year-old Sacha as she sets out to redeem the honor of her explorer grandfather.

Chayé, whose animation experience includes work on such notable features as The Secret of Kells and The Painting, opts for a color-block graphic style inspired by American railway posters of the 1940s. Using no outlines and a sophisticated palette, each cel has the impact of a stylized, emotion-rich picture-book illustration.

The narrative itself gets off to a somewhat stilted start, attributable not to the visuals but to a combination of awkward exposition and the formality of the English voice work. The original French, replaced for Academy Award consideration, has more flow and oomph, especially in the early sequences, but the English-language performances grow more effective as the action proceeds.

Opening in 1882 St. Petersburg, the story finds Sacha (Chloé Dunn) squirming against the expectations of her aristocratic parents (Martin Lewis and Bibi Jacob). With her flashing hazel eyes and one unruly lock of hair — a detail perfect in its simplicity — Sacha is less interested in the debutante ball and the pompous prince (Tom Morton) she’s been paired with than she is in the legacy of Oloukine (Geoffrey Greenhill), her mother’s father, who perished during his recent attempt to claim the North Pole for Russia. Those two facets of Sacha’s life intertwine when she searches for earrings Oloukine gave her years earlier. Her immediate goal is to complete her outfit for the dance, but in the process she discovers information indicating the probable location of her grandfather's still-missing ship.

Sacha’s entreaties to redirect the search for the state-of-the-art icebreaker hit the wall of court politics, deepening the divide between her and her bureaucrat father. With a single-mindedness inherited from Oloukine, but driven by a sense of family honor rather than his patriotic fervor, she sets out to find the ship herself.

As she travels toward the Arctic archipelago of Franz Josef Land, from train to port to merchant ship, the lessons she learns are the stuff of drama, and never pedantic. Sacha also experiences the nitty-gritty of her first job, working in the restaurant of a portside inn owned by the tough but compassionate Olga (Vivienne Vermes). With economy and humor, a brisk montage depicts the girl’s progress from privileged princess to hard-working employee.

Not just Sacha but all the chief characters go through believable changes that propel the story: a flirtatious young shipmate (Tom Perkins), the merchant ship’s rigid captain (Peter Hudson) and his untrustworthy brother (Antony Hickling), their long-stewing sibling tensions brought to the fore. Even a misbehaving shipboard dog plays a crucial role in Sacha’s quest, especially after disaster strikes and finding Oloukine’s abandoned ship becomes a matter of life and death.

The world that Chayé and his collaborators create has an immersive power, not only in an extraordinary blizzard scene, but in the eloquent play of sunlight, shadows and mist throughout the film. With its squawking seabirds, cracking ice floes and merciless winds, the sound design matches the vibrancy of the animation. Though the score is too sprightly at certain key moments, Chayé doesn’t retreat from the story’s darkness or contemplative notes. A climactic confrontation for Sacha has a breathtaking poetic boldness. You don’t have to be an animation buff to appreciate the chances this stirring saga takes.

Distributor: Shout! Factory Films
Production companies: Sacrebleu Productions, Maybe Movies, 2 Minutes, France 3 Cinéma, Norlum
Cast: Chloé Dunn, Vivienne Vermes, Peter Hudson, Antony Hickling, Tom Perkins, Geoffrey Greenhill, Claire Harrison-Bullett, Bibi Jacob, Martin Lewis, Tom Morton, Leslie Clack, Kester Lovelace, Damian Corcoran
Director: Rémi Chayé
Screenwriters: Claire Paoletti, Patricia Valeix 
Producers: Ron Dyens, Henri Magalon 
Adaptation and dialogue: Fabrice de Costil
Artistic director of voices: Viviane Ludwig
Animation director: Liane-Cho Han
Artistic director of color: Patrice Suau
Editor: Benjamin Massoubre
Composer: Jonathan Morali 

Rated PG, 82 minutes