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Seal Team (2021)

Some of the most iconic animated films of all time started from a very simple idea. Like what if a child’s toys came to life? Or what if we made The Great Escape with Chickens? Netflix’s new animated feature Seal Team seems to have such a basic inspiration: what if Navy SEALS were actual seals, as in the sea-going animals?

Seal Team is the third animated feature from Triggerfish, an independent animation studio based in Cape Town, South Africa, following on from Khumba and Adventures in Zambezia- both of which are among their nation’s top five grossing films. It marks the feature debut of writer-director Greig Cameron, with Kane Croudace credited as co-director. The film made its debut internationally via Netflix on New Year's Eve 2021.

The film features an elite unit of seals and dolphins trained by humans to diffuse bombs. The unit was disbanded in the 80s after a mission ended in failure. Years later, a young seal manages to convince the unit’s leader Claggart to lead a new Seal Team to take on the sharks that terrorise the residents of Seal Island.

The story is inspired by the real-life program where the US Navy reportedly really did train dolphins and seals for this purpose, but that’s where any connection with reality ends, in what is ultimately a joyously cartoony movie. The opening sequence takes its inspiration from 80’s action movies, complete with VHS effect and appropriate font choice, which is only the first example of the visual invention that is found throughout the film. It’s here we meet the younger version of Claggart (voiced, with gravelly-gravitas by the always excellent JK Simmons) and the munitions expert Switch, voiced by South Africa’s own Sharlto Copley.

Flashing forwards to the modern day, we are introduced to the various quirky residents of the seal colony. Animated films which have non-human casts can at times struggle to make characters look different from each other when in reality, it’s not that easy for the human eye to tell one from another. Kudos to Triggerfish then for managing to create enough variations on the basic seal design that there is no issue with getting characters mixed up. Giving them each a tuft of human-like hair on the top of their head was a good move, that can play a surprisingly big part in giving each character a personality.  Take for example the vein and boastful Geraldo (voiced by Patrick Warburton), whose floppy hair fits his character perfectly.

Most importantly, this is where we are introduced to our lead Quinn and his best friend Benji, whose close encounter with sharks sets the whole plot in motion.

Any new animated film taking place under the sea has to exist in the shadow of Pixar’s classic Finding Nemo (and its sequel Finding Dory). While some superficial similarities are inevitable (there are only so many ways to depict a shark) Seal Team manages to forge its own identity.

The style of the CG animation here also distinguishes it from Pixar and the majority of CGI films. It uses a lower frame rate, giving the animation a staccato stop-motion-like style. Combined with the use of textures you feel you could almost reach out and touch and the whole thing has a remarkable physicality to it. To get the idea, think of the animation style of SpongeBob: Sponge On The Run, Spider-Verse or The LEGO movies. The third of these seems particularly apt, as Seal Team moves at quite a clip and has a kind of manic energy similar to Lord and Miller’s classic brickbuster.

This combines with some inspired designs that help make the film stand out, both with character designs and in its set design. For the latter, particularly effective is the way a shipwreck is made to resemble a shark in its silhouette and the way that Seal Island itself is in the shape of a seal. In character terms, concepts like the gull with a starfish living in his beak who have “formed a symbiotic relationship” is a highlight, as is Dave, the friendly but socially-awkward Basking Shark. The leader of the shark Grimes does a good job of appearing suitably menace, although he's not exactly the most memorable of villains. His entourage of glowing hench-fish is a nice touch, though

There are plenty of memorable characters throughout the film, even if protagonist Quinn isn’t particularly one of them. Claggart is a fun take on the grizzled veteran (with a heck of a moustache) and is another excellent voice performance from Simmons. Twitchy tech guy Switch also makes an impression, mainly through his use of gadgets such as Octopus-based invisibility suits, clamshell grenades and other experimental weapons. Copley's performance is suitably manic and he sounds like he's having a whale of a time. 

Despite being the most prominent South African in the cast, he's not using his own accent. The only real flashes of a South African twang we hear at all comes from the very brief appearances of humans in the films. As so often happens with animation features produced outside of Hollywood, the film is primarily cast American, presumably under the (unproven) assumption this makes it more salable internationally. It always seems a shame and a missed opportunity to have animated films with more distinctive localised voices (in both senses of the word).

That said, the voice actors do sterling work, as as well as those I've already praised, there's also excellent work from the likes of Kristen Schaal, Dolph Lundren (as a dolphin, naturally). Kate Micucci, Matthew Rhys, Matthew Mercer and Bob Bergen. Listen out too for British Kiss From A Rose singer Seal in a role that goes beyond a mere cameo and gives him one of the best lines in the film.

The director uses several visual tricks and effects throughout, including speed lines and split-screen effects and makes use of techniques such as montages and slow-motion that could come straight out of an 80's or 90's action movie. The film is full of riffs on common tropes and cliches of that era of action cinema and the central plot of a retired soldier coming back for one last mission is very much one of them. The film also throws in elements from Bond movies, war films and even anime for good measure.

Seal Team's spoofery of action flicks will definitely be one of the elements that will appeal most to adult viewers. It will be lost on most of the younger end of the audience, but there's plenty of eyecatching visuals and knockabout cartoony humour to keep the kids engaged too.

For the lack of fanfare that accompanied its release, Seal Team is something of a gem that deserves better than to be lost in the sea of overflowing content that is Netflix's library. Luckily, the film made an appearance on the charts in several countries, suggesting that the audience is finding it on their own.

It's a remarkably confident debut from Cameron and marks both him and Triggerfish as names to watch.



IN A NUTSHELL:  Fast, funny and full of wit and invention, Team Triggerfish gets our Seal of Approval.



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