Long Way North
Old-fashioned adventure yarn is an animated delight
Long Way North (2016)
Directed by Rémi Chayé
Cast: Chloe Dunn, Tom Morton, Antony Hickling
There was a time when young people dreamed of more earthly pursuits. Generations of children were put to bed with successive chapters of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and drifted off to slumber with visions of pirates and South Seas islands swimming through their heads. It’s not that Stevenson’s characters have been completely relegated to the dustbin of history. It’s just that today’s tweens and pre-tweens are far more likely to be versed in the teenage dystopias of books like The Hunger Games than in the old-fashioned adventure yarns of Stevenson, Verne and the like—which is why it’s refreshing to find such a lovely little kid’s adventure tale in the French-Danish film Long Way North.
This animated tale reads like Jack London by way of Czarist Russia. Set in 1880s St. Petersburg, it begins by introducing us to Sasha, a 15-year-old aristocrat whose upper-crust parents are throwing her a debutante ball. Unlike her snooty friends, Sasha isn’t interested in the comings and goings of the royal court. Years ago her grandfather, a famous explorer, disappeared while trying to reach the North Pole. Sasha idolized her grandfather and remains dedicated to his memory—even though he vanished along with the Davai, a terribly expensive, state-of the art icebreaker. The Czar has offered a 1 million ruble reward for the location of the missing ship. And thanks to the timely discovery of some long-lost papers, Sasha believes she knows where it wound up. At her ball, however, Sasha offends a pompous prince—who happens to be the Czar’s new minister of science—by suggesting that everyone has been looking in the wrong place all these years.
According to the notes Sasha has discovered, Grandpa Oloukine took a different path North. But Sasha’s impertinence ticks off the minister—who had it out for old Oloukine anyway. With the country struggling financially (and the Russian Revolution not too far off on the horizon), Oloukine’s failed journey to the North Pole is seen as something of a brave folly. Worried about his own social standing, Sasha’s father punishes her for ruining the ball and chasing off the minister.
This animated tale reads like Jack London by way of Czarist Russia. Set in 1880s St. Petersburg, it begins by introducing us to Sasha, a 15-year-old aristocrat whose upper-crust parents are throwing her a debutante ball. Unlike her snooty friends, Sasha isn’t interested in the comings and goings of the royal court.
But Sasha’s a stubborn young lady. She’s not about to abandon her beloved grandpappy and his reputation. So she runs away from home, figuring if she can find the Davai, she can claim the reward, save her family and rescue Oloukine’s reputation as well. Jumping a train, she heads to the northern coast, hoping to buy her way on a boat heading past the Norwegian archipelago of Spitsbergen, where she believes grandpa and the Davai veered east instead of west.
Sasha has never been on a ship before, but she’s a smart girl and has studied sailing, navigation and cartography. Once she’s out in the real world, however, it becomes clear that her book learning only takes her so far, and that she’s quite a bit more spoiled than she thought. In short order, Sasha is stuck in a backwater port town, broke and out of options. But thanks to her tenaciousness—and the kindness of some strangers—the young gal toughs it out and soon lands a berth on a ship willing to help her hunt for her grandfather’s (hopefully still ice-bound) ship. Once on board she proves a quick study, pulling her own weight and earning the respect of the ship’s gruff captain and his occasionally hapless first mate. What follows is the stuff of classic adventure yarns and a welcome alternative to the majority of today’s high-tech, ADD-style cartoons (in other words, most anything shot after Shrek).
Long Way North is directed by animator Rémi Chayé (who worked on 2009’s The Secret of Kells and 2011’s The Painting). The simple, graphic animation favors large blocks of sophisticated color, sans outlines. The stylish, story-book look is reminiscent of cut-paper illustration or early Soviet propaganda posters. Many of the film’s action sequences—such as a climactic blizzard—are wonders to behold, striking and poetic. The script (from European cartoon writer Claire Paoletti) is somber and a bit linear, offering a straight-
The American voice cast is perfectly functional. There are no names of any note among them, and the often exposition-heavy dialogue comes across as a bit stiff at times. (The original French is reportedly much more fluid.) But everyone involved gets the job done, and things smooth out quite a bit as the action kicks in.
In the end what will stick with viewers is the icy imagery and the admirable young heroine plucky enough to land herself a spot in a Hayao Miyazaki film. That’s more than enough to please Disney-weary adults in the audience. And with luck, it will inspire a young viewer or two to search for adventure closer to home than Hogwarts.