The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t release a shortlist of nominees for Best Animated Feature, instead simply listing all eligible films for a given year, with the 2016 list comprising 22 titles, five of which were eventually nominated. That’s how I stumbled on Long Way North, which is free to stream via Amazon Prime; directed by one of the assistants from the amazing 2009 film The Secret of Kells, Long Way North is a very old-fashioned sort of animated film, made in 2D Flash with a traditional feel and a strong, simple story for all ages. (You can also buy/rent it on iTunes).
Sasha is our heroine, the headstrong daughter of an ambitious Russian diplomat in the late 19th century, but after making a rather poor impression at her debutante ball, she chooses to run away from home to find out what happened to her adventurer grandfather, whose supposedly unsinkable ship never returned from an attempt to sail the Northeast Passage by way of the North Pole. She ends up on a merchant ship of tough guys who agree to search for her grandfather’s ship in hopes of collecting the enormous reward out for it, and, of course, she has to save the day through her courage and cleverness in figuring out where to look.
The movie succeeds on two core levels – the look and the story. The 2D rendering gives the movie a real old-school, almost comic-book feel, enhanced by the lack of contour lines in the film, giving the images a layered look, like paper or fabric pasted on backgrounds. In an era where we expect to be dazzled by animation – look at this year’s Oscar winner Zootopia, with its absurdly realistic rendering of animal fur, or Best Animated Short winner Piper‘s rendering of water – Long Way North delights with its minimalism. It’s a throwback in a good way, with an animation ethos like that of The Triplets of Belleville, where simplicity is given to us as an alternative to the near-perfection of Pixar. Once Sasha gets out of her parents’ dank mansion and into the world, the pictures explode with vibrant colors and sweeping fills that look painted on canvas.
The story is the real selling point in Long Way North, as it takes the coming-of-age framework and gives it a few more adult twists, even darker ones as Sasha and the crew face real life-or-death struggles as they approach the North Pole. Sasha is the center of the entire story and the only fully-realized character in the film, but her arc is more than just “spoiled kid meets adversity” or “child never gives up on dreams.” You know she’s not going to die in the Arctic, but the writers succeed in making her path from home to the Pole and back again matter in a way that gives us drama and tension without feeling forced, while also striking the right balance between rewarding Sasha’s blind faith in her grandfather and making her feel the consequences of the risks she’s taken.
The script itself has some really silly, avoidable mistakes in it. After an accident aboard the ship, one of the sailors rues the loss of all of their penicillin … which wasn’t discovered until about forty years after the time of this film. One scene has a character giving Sasha CPR, even though that technique was also decades away from invention. The Northeast Passage itself had already been sailed before the time of the story as well, by Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, after several partial expeditions by Russian sailors. There’s even a glitch where the title of a book that’s part of the plot changes (by one word). It’s all rather sloppy, which is jarring in a film that looks so clean.
My daughter is a fan of any film that has a female protagonist, especially one who saves the day through cleverness or perseverance, and she loved Long Way North even though the opening exposition is a little confusing. I was more drawn in by the lush feel of the film at first, and didn’t find myself as caught up in the story as she was until the first third or so was over, and Sasha was in the small port town where she boards the mercenary ship. I would probably still recommend this over The Red Turtle, which was nominated for the Oscar over Long Way North, because it’s so much more accessible, with a better literal story (instead of TRT‘s more metaphorical one), and a brighter feast for the eyes as well. And in a related story, I’m hoping to catch My Life as a Zucchini, the only one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature this year I haven’t seen yet, when it plays here in Wilmington this weekend.