Animation in America, at least theatrically, is an interesting beast. With few exceptions, local cineplexes are filled with numerous animated features produced largely by a handful of major studios. However, with the growth of boutique art house distributors like GKids and Funimation, feature animation from across the planet have been able to not only break into various art houses in larger markets, but with the right amount of buzz behind them, they’ve been able to hit even bigger screens.
One can only hope that that’s the case for the latest release from the theatrical wing of Shout! Factory Films, entitled Long Way North. Marking the directorial debut of Remi Chaye (former first AD on films like the Oscar nominated The Secret of Kells), North introduces us to Sacha, a young girl living in the shadow of her grandfather, Oloukine, an explorer whose fate is unknown following his latest expedition. A respected explorer and scientist, Oloukine went on a journey to conquer the North Pole, only to be presumably lost to history along with his government-backed ship, The Davai. However, Sacha is not one to leave her grandfather to memory, particularly after she discovers a bit of evidence that leads her to believe search parties may have been hunting in the wrong areas. Escaping under the shadow of night, Sacha hops aboard a ship and begins her hunt to find her lost grandfather.
If that sounds like the type of narrative one would find within the pages of the very best of children’s books, that’s because this film owes a great debt to that type of storytelling both aesthetically and narratively. Chaye’s direction and animation is gorgeous despite its softness and simplicity, with a style one simply doesn’t seen in modern animation filmmaking. Character designs are soft and lacking the type of photo-real detail modern animation is drowning itself in, with the Russian landscapes built here being just as child-like. Not rudimentary in any way, the film looks as though the pages of the most exciting children’s book were flipped through like a flipbook, with each emotion feeling perfectly wrought. Set in the 1880s, the film is told through a color-block style, a style whose minimalism is a breath of fresh air in a world where photo realism has replaced actual hand-drawn animation. It’s a lush and gorgeous film, particularly when we leave the stilted world of Russian bureaucracy, joining Sacha on her journey.
The film only falters in its voice acting. Shown with English voice talent, the opening act in particular becomes troublesome when the stilted exposition is only worsened by a paint by numbers voice cast. Led by names like Chloe Dunn, Martin Lewis, Bibi Jacob and Tom Morton, the voice work here is unremarkable and utterly forgettable. One can only imagine how much more poetry would be in the French language version, with the dialogue heavy first act really showing the strain of the translation. It softens when we embark on our journey, particularly in flashbacks with Geoffrey Greenhall’s Oloukine being the one shining star in the cast, but there is still a troubling battle between the expressionistic animation and the relatively lifeless voice work.
At roughly 80 minutes in length, the voice work doesn’t doom this film. A beautifully evocative meditation on family and history, Long Way North is an emotionally charged and wonderfully engrossing example of just what animation can do when chances are taken. Picture book-esque, Chaye’s debut is a mixed bag, but his voice is as refreshing as they get.