Long Way North
2016, PG, 81 min. Directed by Rémi Chayé. Voices by Chloé Dunn, Vivienne Vermes, Peter Hudson, Antony Hickling, Tom Perkins, Geoffrey Greenhill.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Oct. 21, 2016
With the advent of computer-generated imagery in animated films, something was gained and something was lost. On the plus side, the technique has allowed filmmakers to expand beyond the inherent boundaries of traditional hand-drawn animation, accomplishing greater sophistication in terms of movement, depth of field, and detail, resulting in a richer sensory experience. On the downside, the same intricacy can distract from the story at hand, particularly when it feels more showy than authentic, resulting in something more like a video game than a narrative film. And don’t get me started about the human characters rendered creepy (even revolting) through the photorealism of CGI, such as those residing in the uncanny valley of The Polar Express and The Adventures of Tintin, among others. Talk about your fright of the living dead.
The lovely Long Way North is an old-fashioned animated movie, but don’t let its unfussy execution fool you. This French-Danish production, directed by one of the animators of 2009’s Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells, recounts the quest of Sacha, a headstrong 15-year-old girl from an aristocratic Russian family, to solve the mystery of her beloved grandfather’s disappearance in the Arctic during a controversial expedition to claim the North Pole for the Czar. (Note: The exposition-heavy opening scenes laying out the explorer’s fateful mission may prove difficult for younger audience members to follow.) Though its initial forays into the drawing rooms of 1882 St. Petersburg and the musty confines of a seaside inn don’t visually enthrall (with the exception of a clever montage depicting Sacha’s development from spoiled debutante to hardworking scullery maid and waitress), the movie achieves an ethereal, frosty beauty once its heroine embarks on a nautical voyage to find the Davai, the icebreaker captained by her missing dedushka. The human-sketched imagery in this section of the film is more poetic than anything a software program could realize: the gently rollicking rhythm of a ship at sea; the crackling fracture of ice floes banging against the hull; the waterfall of glacial ice plunging into a chilled ocean; the frozen outline of a ship’s masts against an infinite landscape of white. Granted, Long Way North has its share of shortcomings, such as its blandish narrative, a couple of jarringly anachronistic references (penicillin in the 19th century?), a less-than-satisfying third act (Sasha’s closure isn’t wholly convincing), and a rather abrupt (and head-scratching) ending. (Just how did everyone get home exactly?) But do yourself a favor. Set those things aside, and embrace the simple pleasures of pen to paper.