Though technically released in 2015, Long Way North wasn’t distributed beyond the Annecy Film Festival until this year. It’s a French-Danish co-production which makes sense considering the story itself is Russian.
After her explorer grandfather goes missing on an expedition to the North Pole, teenage aristocrat Sasha takes it upon herself to find him. Discerning the trajectory of his route, she runs away from home to board a ship that can take her through the dangerous Arctic waters, where she determines to if not find her grandfather, complete his quest.
The story is very likeable albeit basic. Sasha as the youth embarking on a seafaring adventure has definite shades of Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island to her. In fact at one point she winds up in the service of a tavern very much like the Admiral Benbow Inn. And there aren’t a ton of surprises or creative detours the film takes. It’s pretty much the story you think it’s going to be and it’s hoping you’ll be along for the ride regardless. It does a few things uniquely though. For one, I don’t know the last time I saw a movie based largely around charting the Arctic Ocean. Long Way North really emphasizes the harsh conditions and dangers of sailing into that territory. But to a degree it also captures the mystique of that climate. There is something romantic in this journey and it’s relatively harmless aims. You understand why Sasha’s grandfather, a Shackleton kind of figure, was so entranced by it. And how Sasha shares in his curiosity.
Sasha is a typical protagonist for this kind of story. She’s fiercely determined and dedicated to her quest while also motivated out of intrigue and the notion of adventure. She’s somewhat clichéd, but as far as clichéd characterizations go, she’s not bad. Her relationship with her grandfather is interesting and endearing. We see that there’s a disconnect between her and her parents as there implicitly is between them and grandpa. It’s like the relationship between the grandfather and grandson in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, but done right. Sasha’s given a minor love interest in the form of a mischievous cabin boy called Katch who’s a decent character but I really like that the film doesn’t go very far with them The more interesting characters she comes across are the stern Captain Lund and the irresponsible first mate Larson, both of whom have their own supporting character arcs through the latter half of the film. There’s also a cute pet wolf who seems par for the course in an animated movie.
But of course the movie’s best feature, which does a great job trumping most shortcomings elsewhere, is the animation. The visuals of Long Way North are just mesmerizing! Some of the folks from Cartoon Saloon, the studio behind The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea worked on this movie and it shows. Like those films, there’s a very clear attempt to look paper-drawn and it’s done in an incredibly stylish fashion. It’s beautiful and bright, the vividness of it all keeping your attention through scenes that would otherwise be monotonous. Long Way North is a film that takes it’s time with it’s pacing, allowing you to take in the scenes, including every visual detail. They know they have something great and they want to show it off; but I approve, because the richness is gorgeous to look at. Also, the movement of the animation is wonderfully rhythmic, a low energy that suits both the plot and style. The character designs are really distinct as well; though fairly simple, they can convey quite a bit of emotion and wonder. Particularly the eyes stand out. The best way to describe it is that each scene is like some kind of impressionist painting brought to life (something like Matisse crossed with Monet).
So while not anything too exceptional on plot, Long Way North is certainly one of the best looking animated films of the year. It’s captivating animation really accentuates the fact that this was the best medium to tell its’ story in. Though a little predictable, the story itself is still engaging for the pure adventure of it, the detailed portrayal of naval life in Arctic conditions is fascinating, and the character journey of Sasha, you’re on board for. One of 2016’s most beautiful films, it’s a testament to artistic creativity in animation that I wish came along more often.