2016 - 81 minutes
Directed by: Rémi Chayé
Written by: Claire Paoletti, Patricia Valeix
*Long Way North opens locally at the Gene Siskel Film Center on December 16th.
Long Way North marries stunning hand-drawn animation with thrilling, meaningful adventure. Both the style and story are simple, yet extremely affecting. The young hero’s journey is perilous, both emotionally and physically, with thoughtful depictions of themes like dogged determination and familial bonds.
Director Rémi Chayé and writers Claire Paoletti and Patricia Valeix favor a more measured approach instead of relying on obvious coming of age platitudes, which makes the tale feel grand and insightful.
Beginning in St. Petersburg in the late 19th century, Long Way North follows 15-year-old aristocrat Sasha (voiced by Christa Théret) on an adventure to the Arctic Circle. Her grandfather Oloukine (Féodor Atkine), a famous explorer, disappeared on an expedition to the North Pole and his ship, the Davai, was never found. Based on some her grandfather’s notes, Sasha believes searchers were looking in the wrong place. When Russian officials brush her off, she shows an explorer’s spirit and heads out to find the ship, and the mysteries of its disappearance, on her own. There’s a monetary reward to find the Davai, but the discovery is much more important than that.
Instead of a cutesy quest, Sasha runs into several obstacles that test her will in a realistic way. Without the means to procure a spot on a ship, she earns her keep by working in a tavern near the port. When an opportunity presents itself, she convinces a captain to bring her on an expedition, a feat more impressive considering that captain’s first mate (and brother) had previously swindled the young girl.
Her strength and bravery only grow from there. Confidence swells as she sticks her to beliefs on where to find the ship and Sasha displays the willingness to do whatever it takes to make the find. There aren’t a lot of convenient mentors or supporters to help, either. A dog and a young man are also aboard the ship, but neither is used for cheap comic relief or easy companionship. They’re just part of the rite of passage, tangentially helping Sasha learn to relate and grow up.
The voyage is made all the more captivating by the cell animation. It’s amazing how simple lines in faces and subtle changes to expressions reveal motivations and emotions in a minimalist way. It’s like the animators are giving an incredibly nuanced acting performance.
Environments are also captivating and the delicate, yet always present, use of shadows and light cascading over the faces and locales provides dimension, movement, and mood.
Snowflakes in an early scene resemble ripped up scraps of construction paper. It feels like you could reach out and touch them. That delicacy contrasts the harrowing trek through icy waters and blizzards that contain real dangers. The snow becomes a chronic menace, as do various other elements and creatures. There are palpable threats – including freezing and hunger – that Long Way Down doesn’t completely shy away from.
The well-paced story mixes with the spectacular look – and an atypical poppy soundtrack – to create a potent message about courage in the face of all challenges, be they tangible or conceptual. All of the straightforward simplicity comes together to create something epic.