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Long Way North (2015)

In late 1800's Russia, Sasha, the daughter of a family of aristocrats, is still mourning the loss of her beloved grandfather. A renowned adventurer and explorer, he was apparently lost on an expedition to the North Pole. Sasha does not believe the story that his ship sunk and decided to follow in his footsteps to find his boat and salvage his and her family's reputation.

Long Way North (original title Tout En Haut du Monde) is a French/Danish co-production from debutante director Rémi Chayé. Although it marks his first time directing a feature, Chayé worked on several acclaimed European features, most notably as an assistant director on Cartoon Saloon's Secret Of Kells. So as might be expected, Long Way North's 2D visuals have a similarity to the work of Cartoon Saloon. In motion, however, it quickly becomes clear that there are some pretty big differences, too.

Most notably, the lack of outlines gives the film a distinctive look. Combined with a very muted colour palette and flat-looking backgrounds it creates something that doesn't look quite like anything else out there right now. The animation itself is much less fluid and flashy than some other traditionally animated features we've seen recently. This more simplistic style actually suits the film just fine, and serves as an interesting counterpoint to the technical arms-race found elsewhere in animation.

The story is a pretty straightforward adventure yarn, featuring a plucky youngster who knows better than those pesky grown-ups. In other words- the kind of story that is likely to appeal to the young audience that this is chiefly made for. In Sasha, the film has an extremely positive female role-model, a feisty young lady more interested in adventure and science than the glitz and glamour of the life of a pre-revolutionary Russian aristocrat. She has a similarity to the heroine of a Miyazaki film, although on occasion the plot contrives to ensure she is rescued by one of the male characters. For the most part though, she is representative of the kind of characters we need to see more of.

When we finally reach the frozen north, the story kicks up a gear with a great sense of adventure and dramatic moments. The way the film creates a blizzard, through relatively simple animation and sound design is particularly effective- to the extent you may think you feel the chill.

The visual style is better suited to character moments than epic vistas, and this prevents the climax from having the real "wow" factor it might have had. Sadly, the polar landscapes wind up looking a little flat.

Despite its budgetary limitations, the film's compelling narrative and magnetic lead ensure that you will be kept enraptured to the end. And while the story itself is pretty simple, it has some more sophisticated emotional dimensions that will be appreciated by older children and adults.

The film is available in both original French language or with an English dub. Whichever you choose, the voice acting is not really the strongest part of the equation, with both versions featuring flat and lifeless performances. The English version does at least ensure the film is more accessible to the younger audience.

Long Way North is a very impressive debut for Chayé. Visually unique and with a captivating story it marks him out as a talent to watch. His next film will apparently see him recount the childhood of Calamity Jane- and based on what we see here we anticipate great things.

LONG WAY NORTH is available on DVD in the UK from SODA and in the US  on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital from SHOUT FACTORY.