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The Sea Beast (2022)

The Sea Beast
, the new film from Sony Pictures Imageworks dropping onto Netflix, is almost as straightforward as its title. It’s an adventure yarn of sailing ships and marine monsters, written and directed by Chris Williams stepping beyond Disney, where he co-directed Big Hero 6 and Moana.

The Sea Beast is made to similar standards (I caught it on a limited UK cinema release before its Netflix bow), but unlike most Hollywood cartoons, it foregrounds the adventure as much as the characters. The film has one song, a sea-shanty, that’s part of diegetic revels. There’s no princess. The story has a twist, but it’s not a robot or a pop singer to threaten the fourth wall.   

It’s technically set in a fantasy world, but it feels like a period adventure. That’s something else unusual for a Hollywood cartoon, at least since the flop of Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire twenty years ago. As a nautical adventure, Sea Beast also prompts memories of an even bigger flop of that time, Treasure Planet. Yet those films had extra hooks – the graphic design of Mike Mignola on Atlantis, Treasure Planet’s space-fantasy – that Sea Beast eschews, and its confidence does it credit. 

In the first act, the story feels like a fantastical take on Moby Dick with nods to the third act of Jaws (the hunt on the sea). The ocean is full of gigantic monsters which regularly sink sailing ships; a brief prologue shows a lone boy surviving such a wreck. He grows up into Jacob, an elite “Hunter” sworn to slay such Beasts till he dies, voiced by a well-placed Karl Urban (who plays another hunter in the gory anti-superhero show, The Boys)

He and his comrades crew the good ship Inevitable under the scarred, towering Captain Crow, who’s stern but with good humour beneath. There’s a touching early scene between Jacob and Crow in the captain’s cabin, where Crow makes clear he sees Jacob as his heir. Crow’s voiced by Jared Harris (Mad Men) who’s London-born, but his voice here sounds pleasantly like the immortal Brian Glover.

Unsurprisingly, Crow also has overtones of Quint from Jaws, especially in commanding a dramatic ship battle with a monster in the first minutes. It deftly sets out the film’s stall. The fight is tremendous and exciting, with much leaping and climbing and falling as the human crew take on a sea creature as big as their ship. After taking damage, the Inevitable returns to land, where Jacob encounters a stranger. She’s a little black girl called Maisie (British actress Zaris-Angel Hator) who’s run away from her orphanage – her parents were Hunters like Jacob who went down with their ship. Maisie has devoured accounts of the Inevitable’s exploits, and Jacob’s especially, and she’s set on joining their crew. 

Jacob sends her packing, but she’ll pop back up soon. The Inevitable sets out again, this time with competition from the Royal Navy, and Crow determined to slay the Red Bluster, the most feared sea beast of all. The stowaway Maisie reveals herself to Crow’s amusement and Jacob’s dismay, and the hunt begins. But when ship and Beast meet, Crow and Maisie will find themselves separated from their crewmates, and deflected into a different kind of story.

Twenty years ago, I remember waiting for Disney’s terrific-sounding Atlantis and Treasure Planet with more anticipation than I had for Spider-Man or Lord of the Rings. Compared to either Disney, Sea Beast is better simply as a story. If Disney had made Sea Beast in traditional animation around 2001, it would have knocked me out. And even in CGI, it has one of the great virtues of trad animation – some really expressive character acting, especially from the adorable Maisie. It’s obvious from her first meeting with Jacob, this girl pestering him full of confidence and excitement – all excellent animation, with no large-scale action to distract. The hard-bitten Crow has some fine expressions too. 

I’d have loved Sea Beast twenty years ago, and many viewers will still love it. For me, its biggest problem is tied up with another CG film from another Hollywood studio, but that involves spoiling more of the story (proceed with caution).

After they’ve been separated from the other characters, Maisie and Jacob discover that the Red Bluster and the other sea creatures are naturally non-violent and intelligent. At least Maisie learns this quickly; Jacob takes far longer to come round to the idea. And almost at once, Sea Beast starts feeling like a film from twelve years ago – DreamWorks’ original How To Train Your Dragon. That’s a problem, because Dragon told the story so much better.

One of the main achievements of DreamWorks’ film was to sell the title dragon, Toothless, as a real animal, smart, inquisitive and playful. In The Sea Beast, the Red Bluster is just as much an animal, only its actions towards humans aren’t believable in the film’s own framework. The Beast acts in ways that no injured, scared creature would ever act towards people who are still clear threats. There’s no sense of the gradual human-animal bonding that Dragon showed so carefully, influenced in turn by a live-action classic, The Black Stallion

It hardly helps that, as other reviewers have noted, the Bluster (soon named Red) looks obviously like Toothless, only far more outsized and ungainly. The only time I liked how it looks is when Red takes to land and looks over a hill at its foes, in what looks like an homage to Godzilla’s first scene in 1954 (at the start of this clip). At least the scale of Red and the other creatures allows for great physical routines, as Maisie and Jacob swing haplessly on ropes or slide from one side of a monster’s back to the other.

But the later scenes felt slow, though it’s hard to tell how much I was chafing at their familiar trajectory. (The first act’s scenes between Jacob and Crow, and Jacob meeting Maisie, play leisurely too, but they’re much more interesting.) Objectively, The Sea Beast is long; at 115 minutes, it’s less substantial than, for example, Moana, which ran two minutes less with songs. There’s a particular subplot which feels surplus, with Captain Crow seeking out an “ultimate” weapon against the Bluster from a witch-like woman. It could have easily been dropped – indeed, it dilutes the focus on Crow’s obsessed mindset.

From the start of act two, Maisie sees that the creatures are benign, while Jacob stays prejudiced, showing a boorish side that was hardly hinted previously. Dramatically, all this is tedious. How To Train Your Dragon was equally clear on the youngster character (Hiccup) being right and the adults wrong, but it made an ironic fulcrum of the boy who can communicate with a dragon but not his own human father. 

Joke name apart, Hiccup felt believable, while Maisie always seems a script mouthpiece. It would have been different if had she been sympathetic to nature and the sea beasts from the start, something like Miyazaki’s Nausicaa. It’s her sudden switch to savant that’s so hard to buy; like Red, she’s failed by the film’s framework.

But for some viewers, maybe it’s justified by the conclusion, which sees the child literally shouting truth to adult power in a bid to change the world. It’s the closest I’ve seen to an appearance by Greta Thunberg in an animated feature. It may speak to youngsters frightened for the planet, much as Frozen’s Elsa sang to youngsters in their cyber-kingdoms of isolation. That’s not even mentioning Maisie’s blackness – though it was the film’s other major black character, a first mate voiced by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who had me cheering when she changes her mind with fewer words and better timing.

As a footnote, it’s amusing that the film drops on Netflix shortly after the third season of the anthology Love, Death and Robots. That has its own grisly “ships and sea monsters” CG yarn, a story called Bad Travelling directed by no less than David Fincher in his animation debut. Its monster speaks after a fashion, but friending it isn’t an option.



IN A NUTSHELL: An impressive adventure yarn, very well made, but it has internal inconsistencies, and suffers in comparison with an obvious precursor.


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