It’s not often that I’m totally captivated by a new animated film just from looking at a few stills. (Usually, it’s, you know, the animation that grabs me.) But that’s precisely what happened with Long Way North. It was love at first sight, and, I’ll admit, some of that might have to do with the fact that I’m starved for traditional hand-drawn animation that also happens to tell a compelling story. But Long Way North, which opens in limited release this week, absolutely delivers.
Imagine if The Secret of Kells and Paul Cézanne had a baby. The result wouldn’t be too far off. This is hardly a surprise, since Long Way North is the feature directorial debut of animator Rémi Chayé, who was first AD and head of storyboard for The Secret of Kells and The Painting. The film is stunningly gorgeous.
The story is set in late 19th century Saint Petersburg. Sacha, a young girl from the Russian aristocracy, anguishes over the fate of her grandfather, Oloukine, who was a renowned scientist and Arctic explorer. He staked his entire career (and much of the country’s wealth and reputation) on his attempt to find the North Pole. However, he never returned from his latest expedition and is presumed dead.
Sacha, though, is holding out hope. On the surface, she is doing her best to play the role of a “proper” young lady who knows her place in society. She defers to her parents, she attends her debutante ball, she meets a pretentious royal suitor, and she tries to make it all look convincing.
But her heart is in the frozen north with her grandfather. She’s fascinated by the lure of an adventurous life and yearns to be an explorer. Her true self bubbles to the surface as she meets her intended husband, and she soon finds herself at odds with her parents, who strongly disapprove of her reckless behavior and dangerous way of thinking. Defying her destiny, Sacha runs away and sets out on a quest toward the Great North in search of Oloukine and his ship.
Ostensibly, the story is about finding the missing ship, but it’s also a fascinating insight into a culture and time period that doesn’t get much play in modern animation. It’s a thrilling adventure story that genuinely relates many of the hardships that early Arctic explorers had to face. And Sacha’s personal story is also incredibly inspiring and empowering as she defies all odds as she faces dozens of obstacles in her way.
Running away from her privileged position in society only makes her life harder as she must constantly prove herself both to the working-class people with whom she needs to work and to the patriarchal Russian society that sees her as a weak, defenseless little girl more in need of their pity than respect. Sacha fights every step of the way, and even though it might not be 100% historically accurate, it’s still a wonderfully engaging and compelling story.
As I mentioned, the animation is superb and an absolute delight to watch. My only complaint with the film is the English dub. The acting was about on par; I wouldn’t call it exceptional, but it wasn’t bad either. However, most of the lines sounded as if the actors were standing in a cavernous room rather than a studio. In other words, it wasn’t a great recording, there was a lot of echo, and I found it to be more than a little distracting. I was provided with an advance screener that only had the English dub, so I couldn’t compare it to the original French to see if this was by design or not.
Still, this doesn’t affect my wholehearted recommendation of the film. I just want to see out the original French version now. (I’m not a fan of English dubs in general anyway.)
Long Way North won the coveted Audience Award at the 2015 Annecy International Animation Film Festival and opens in limited release this week. Check here for cities and dates.