Film Review: Long Way North

A brave young girl from an aristocratic Russian family leads an adventurous trek to the North Pole in this visually fascinating and often exciting animated feature set in the 19th century.
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Although the story in Long Way North seems as if it must have been taken from an old Russian folk tale, it is in fact based on a new and original idea from the screenwriter Claire Paoletti, and its main narrative reinforces some very contemporary feminist goals to bolster the self-confidence of girls and young women who may feel oppressed by the societies they were born into.

Sacha (voiced by Chloe Dunn) is the only child of an aristocratic couple in St. Petersburg in 1882, when the Romanov Czars still ruled, and as a child she develops an extremely close relationship with her heroic grandfather, Captain Oloukine (Geoffrey Greenhill), who encouraged her adventurous spirit. Sacha was there when her grandfather sets sail on his ice-breaking ship, the Davai, hoping to reach the North Pole and claim it for Russia. Neither the captain nor his ship returns to St. Petersburg, and the Czar offers a million rubles to anyone who can find them. When several efforts fail, the search is abandoned, even though Sacha tells everyone they’ve been looking in the wrong place; she has read her grandfather’s notes and she knows where the Davai was headed.

Sacha doesn’t do anything about searching for the Davai until her parents try to betroth her, at age 15, to Prince Tomsky (Tom Morton), a man she cannot stand. So, in the middle of the night, Sacha flees from the warmth of her palatial family home and begins to travel the long way north to a port city where she hopes to find a ship to take her to her grandfather. And, of course, she conquers all obstacles in her path—the brutal weather, the lack of money, etc. When she meets Lund (Peter Hudson), a sailor who claims he’s a ship’s captain, he offers to take her onboard—for the price of her precious earrings (from her grandfather). But the ship sails without her, so to earn her keep, the spunky Sacha becomes a scullery maid at an inn owned by the stern but kindly Olga (Vivienne Vermes) until Lund’s ship returns. When it does, Sacha learns that the ship’s actual captain is Lund’s older brother, Larson (Anthony Hickling), who, although originally against the whole idea, eventually agrees to let Sacha come aboard and join the search for the Davai.

Until this point, the muted, color-block animation of Long Way North has been more or less static, with each frame resembling one of those art-deco travel posters from the 1920s and ’30s. But, suddenly, these poster-like views of the sea and sky, of the ship’s prow and the ice floes become more than just animated—they become greatly agitated, plunging into the sea or piercing the flat-white land or sky. It’s rather miraculous, really, to get this much excitement out of images that are basically so stark and simple, with no black outlines to contain them. The French director/animator Rémi Chayé is to be commended for finding a new technique (or perhaps reviving an old one?) to create the kind of moving-picture animation that can truly excite audiences of all ages—but especially little girls.

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