The internet has been quite vocal as of late over what sort of audience the spectrum of animation is supposed to cater to, or its viability as both a genre and an art form. Just as Minions: The Rise of Gru became a disruptor in the field, with teens, young adults, and families all watching, the next major film to embrace the art form goes further, merely one week later. The Sea Beast is just that film, leaping an extra nautical mile or two to, hopefully, remind a waiting audience how animation can tell a story as engrossing, grown-up, and audacious as any giant budget live-action IP. A rousing tale, oddly reminiscent of either nineties adventure fare or ambitious CG fare dating back at least a decade, back when studios felt keener to bravely pull risks. And all involving mythological water-bound creatures, and their troubled history with humanity.
Director Chris Williams effortlessly translate his years of theatrical experience with Disney Animation (Bolt, Moana, Big Hero 6) to this Netflix original, crafting an original tale best designed for the big screen. One whose footprints echo those of either Mutiny on the Bounty, or How to Train Your Dragon. It could be a little of both, in a bygone era, where an antique monarchy rules over all subjects. And where humongous monsters are seen as threats to passage across wide oceans. In an agreement lasting centuries, a tight-knit group of hunter pirates scour these depths to target and kill these presumed brutes. Most decorated among them is Captain Crow (Jared Harris), an aging legend whose pursuits would be made immortal on the written page. Before retiring and passing on the torch to his second in command Jacob Holland (Karl Urban), he’s desperate to take down the Red Bluster, an oversized figure whose capture had eluded him over the years.
The King (Jim Carter) and Queen (Doon Mackichan), meanwhile, have grown impatient with whom they’ve forged an alliance. So much they challenge an ultimatum, alongside youthful rival Hornagold (Dan Stevens), captaining a much larger watercraft with full-scale period weaponry. Whoever can make the capture first will maintain their royal partnership. As Jacob eventually discovers, through the perspective of hunter-orphan Maisie Brumble (Zaris-Angel Hator), such a task may not be as easy, or believable, as once imagined in stories.
That is the first major puzzle piece for both Williams and co-writer Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde: The Musical). The idea of separating myth from reality, in a mature and sensible manner. That concept might not be what most audiences look for in animation. A genre description like “adventure epic” at its basics, often tends to focus exclusively on the thrill. Rarely or never does it speak for the ethics, or what could be learned as well as ventured. To find the truth in fiction takes an inquisitive mind, free of distraction. Right from the moment she escapes an orphanage to sneak onto Crow’s ship, Maisie answers that call with both intelligence and wit. Having known the stories all her life, she dreams of following in her parents’ footsteps and collaborating with the hunters.
Jacob, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly skeptical of her presence as a stowaway, stubborn enough to stay in line with his mentor on the virtues of trust. Therein falls the other element determining Williams’ grasp on tone, the link between trust and bravery. The second act is an unabashed exercise in that idea. The pair are pitted to work together, calmly navigating a mysterious island, uncharted seas, and their respective ids. The further this story goes off the map, the more we uncover about both Maisie and Jacob’s adventurous impulses, brought together by an informed quest for prospects. That is never lost on the viewer, serving as a balm between grand fight sequences flaunting both Jacob’s zest for life and the overall scale of this animated plight.
Williams does not make a quiet effort out of expressing the conflict between human and monster, grounding its tone and clarity while not playing down or up to its audience. That finite connection is approached with a stark idea of drama, cutting the tension where applicable in Jacob’s mismatch with the kid sidekick. A film like Sea Beast can be funny, to keep the younger viewers engaged. And that does run on familiar ground, without appearing Disney-like. To go as dark as it does with its immense worldbuilding and fearful secrecy is a risk that pays off in excess. Like a sophisticated spin on the Lassie motif, that family-friendly formula with a co-existing animal character.
Such heightened class is infectious with Williams’ shipmates, nailing the classic seafaring look alongside animation director Zach Parrish (Us Again), production designer Matthias Lechner (Encanto), and lead character designer Tony Fucile (The Incredibles). Composer Mark Mancina (Tarzan) runs close in step to lock in the antique sound, with authentic and emphatic instrumentation. No detail is ever brushed aside, between locations, vessels, bright color palettes, and any of the water monsters, whose expression-rich faces speak volumes. The latter, with even the faintest ounce of effort, briefly outshines candid, sprightly performances out of Urban (at his gruffest) and Harris. Newcomer Hator brings an optimistic spark throughout to lower her co-star’s defenses. And, to a small extent, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, infuses straight-faced honesty as an assisting ship officer.
Those viewers who’d be going into The Sea Beast expecting a cutesy cartoon adventure, best be prepared for more than bargained. And that is not the worst thing imaginable. With an experienced talent like Williams at the helm, his eye for story has lent itself to a very truthful exercise in dispelling fears, extracting true smarts and pluck. There might not be enough evergreen humor to get every audience member laughing, that’s admissible. Its mature perception of ethics and character strengths, coupled with an eye-catching visual template make up the difference in spades. The Sea Beast may not be the year’s greatest animated work, diving in another competitive field. I still found it a worthy, if not also energizing trip to embark on, its lofty ideal of size, scale and heart further justifying the medium’s presence on any screen, preferably large. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
The Sea Beast streams on Netflix June 8; rated PG for action, violence and some language; 115 minutes.