DIRECTOR: Chris Williams

CAST: Karl Urban, Zaris-Angel Hator, Jared Harris, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Dan Stevens, Kathy Burke

RUNNING TIME: 119 mins

CERTIFICATE: PG

BASICALLY…: A young girl (Hator) stows away on the ship of a famed sea monster hunter (Urban)…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Netflix has made a lot of cutbacks in its business operations recently, in reaction to the sudden decrease in subscribers, and some of the most tragic are within the streamer’s in-house animation department. Despite having produced some critically acclaimed and occasionally Oscar-nominated projects like Klaus, Over the Moon and Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood, Netflix Animation has now had to cancel several projects that were in active development, potentially denying audiences many more original and story-driven films and shows which, had it been allowed to continue, might have even competed with the likes of Pixar.

It’s especially disheartening when The Sea Beast, one of Netflix’s remaining animated projects still due for release, proves to actually be a worthy competitor to the bigger animation studios, with top-grade storytelling, well-developed characters, and some truly stunning graphics which honestly deserve a much bigger screen than the ones that most will perhaps view this on.

Taking place during a time when gigantic sea monsters roam the seas, hunters are commissioned by royalty to track down and kill the enlarged creatures, making the oceans safer for mankind. One of these hunters is the heroic Jacob Holland (voiced by Karl Urban), who serves as second-in-command to the famed Captain Crow (Jared Harris) on his ship the Inevitable, and assists Crow in hunting down an elusive red beast known as the Red Bluster. However, whilst on a decisive mission to hunt the creature once and for all, Jacob is horrified to find that an adventurous young girl named Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator) has stowed away on the dangerous ship, and the two of them are soon thrust on an adventure across the seas, where they find that the massive sea beasts that they’ve been hunting all this time, might actually not be so dangerous after all.

Anyone who has seen How to Train Your Dragon will probably find it easy to guess exactly where things are headed (the Red Bluster, which is central to the movie as a whole, even looks a bit like a crimson and oversized Toothless), but The Sea Beast makes up for its slight predictability with a genuinely engaging story that still manages to get by with maturity and a genuine nature. It’s a very well-written script, co-penned by the film’s director Chris Williams – whose previous experience on recent Disney classics like Bolt, Moana and Big Hero 6 (the latter of which he won an Oscar for) certainly seem to have prepared him for animated storytelling of the old-fashioned variety – which spends a lot of time with these characters to really understand where they’re coming from, ensuring that they stray far away from easy hero/villain archetypes. You get a strong understanding of our main hero Jacob, who’s this genuinely heroic and likeable presence all throughout (which seems to be what they tried to do, and failed, with Lightyear), as well as this main adversary who, while he doesn’t do a lot of good things, is still a sympathetic and even tragic figure that you’re very much interested in. Even the obligatory child character, who under lesser writing would just be another in a long line of annoying young waifs in this kind of movie, has a lot of great moments where even she is confronting some of her beliefs and heroes that she has grown up idolising. It’s honestly surprising how much this film truly respects its characters by just letting them be who they are, without ever having to dumb things down for a younger audience.

As well as being a profound movie to get invested in, with its genuinely complex characters and strong narrative, The Sea Beast boasts some astonishing animation that, at times, feels about on par with some of the better-known cartoon studios out there. The photorealistic textures given to everything from the water to the scales of these beasts to even the frizziest of hair are meticulously crafted, lending it a look that feels very cinematic, not to mention just as grand as most big-budget live-action epics. Occasionally, there will be some cartoonish designs that are clearly there just to appeal to children (a tiny blue creature that young Maisie adopts as a pet is exactly that), but even then there are some gorgeous layers that accompany it which do honestly make up for the marketable cutesiness. It’s one of those movies where you could easily just put it on mute and just enjoy the beautiful visuals, but in this case you would also be denying yourself a story and cast of characters who are honestly just as rich as the animation. Honestly, it is a shame that this isn’t getting a theatrical release, because a movie with such breathtaking visuals does deserve a big-screen experience instead of playing exclusively in people’s homes.

Overall, the movie is a rather nice surprise, in almost the exact opposite way in which Lightyear was a confounding disappointment. Not only does it have some excellent animation, but it is also has some very respectable storytelling cues with characters who are easy to like and sympathise with, some good messages about the importance of acknowledging one’s flaws, and enough family-friendly humour which still has a neat and slightly intense edge to it that doesn’t condescend to children or adults. So, it makes it all the more sad that Netflix Animation is being forced to dwindle down on productions like this; I get that costs have to be cut when a business is losing its steadiness, but when it’s at the expense of several animators and creative teams that are producing some of the more unique and original pieces of content right now in the world of animation, there is a whiff of the company shooting itself in the foot, because they’re going to be losing out on genuinely ambitious cartoon projects. At a time when theatrical animation is populated by the Minions, who still break several box-office records with features that aren’t anywhere near as provocative or as well-rounded as The Sea Beast, alternate choices like this still need to be made available so that the market stays diverse and interesting.

Luckily, audiences do have this as a choice, especially when it’s one of the stronger animated films to come out this summer – even if it’s on a struggling streaming platform instead of on the big screen.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Sea Beast is rich with dazzling animation, neatly old-fashioned storytelling, and plenty of likeable and complex characters that easily carry this engaging, if slightly predictable, high-seas adventure for the whole family.

The Sea Beast is now available to stream on Netflix.

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