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Review: 'Long Way North'

A stunning, 2D animated feature about a young girl’s journey to the North Pole seeking to redeem her family’s honor.

All images are film stills unless otherwise noted, and are courtesy of Sacrebleu, Maybe Movies and Norlum.

They don’t make ‘em like this anymore, at least not in this country. In fact, they hardly ever made ‘em like this in the first place.

“This” is the classically animated 2D feature Long Way North, a Danish/French co-production released in the U.S. by Shout! Factory Films. Shout! is better known for their home video compilations of classic TV series. Lately they’ve been commissioning original productions like new Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episodes; evidently they’re also moving into film distribution. In fact, I was surprised to see their name on the screeners they sent me; this is exactly the kind of movie, a beautifully handcrafted animated feature from abroad, I’m used to seeing from GKids.

The film is set in late 19th century Russia, where a young girl’s slip of the tongue ruins her father’s shot at a coveted ambassadorship abroad. The young girl is Sacha, granddaughter of a famous explorer who years before disappeared in search of the North Pole. Discovering her grandfather’s true route north on a scrap of paper, she sets out to redeem her family’s honor by locating his ice-bound ship.

Concept art - the Palace.

Concept art - background colors.

Concept art - fugue.

Concept art - blizzard.

A youngster on a mission is the foundation of many an animated feature, but Long Way North, if you’ll excuse a nautical expression, takes a different tack. (By the way, its original French title, Tout en Haut Du Monde translates to something along the lines of “Everything on Top of the World.”) The film is quiet, restrained and (apart from a bravura sequence involving a ship trapped between an iceberg and a crumbling glacier) character-focused. A narrowing of the eyes, a slight glance or smile is all it takes to convey what’s going on inside their heads, just as a sparse line or two of dialog moves the plot along. Characters who start out as less than noble redeem themselves along the way, the growing tension between crewmembers that gives way to outright hostility feels real and not shoehorned in for dramatic purposes. (Even the ship’s eager-eyed dog behaves like a real dog, free of even the slightest touch of anthropomorphism.)

The film’s visual style is stunning and impressive: in place of black-outlined figures and backgrounds, everything is composed of simple, unshaded patches of muted colors. (I’m sure there are other films similarly styled, but the only other one I remember offhand is 1981’s Grendel Grendel Grendel, the Beowulf legend told from the monster’s point of view.) Even without clearly delineated borders, everything is distinctively rendered; characters never vanish into the backgrounds. In the film’s production notes director Rémi Chayé (whose most notable previous credit was as first assistant director on The Secret of Kells) praised the cel painters who used the animators’ line work only as guides to delineate each frame’s color fills. He also hat-tipped the film’s color artistic director (a job title that’s new to me) with defining the film’s graphic style “using 1940’s American railway companies’ posters, very simple with saturated colors.”

Like many contemporary 2D features, CGI elements are merged with traditional animation, but only when necessary. “What interests me is the emotion,” Chayé explained in those notes. “I want the animators to spend time on the characters’ emotions, not tracing details or pulleys. That’s why the graphic style is so simple. No buttons, no laces, no folds in the clothes.”

Sacha convinces the stern captain of a merchant ship to search for her grandfather’s vessel. (The government’s million-ruble reward for the ship’s recovery probably helped him make up his mind.) When the merchant ship reaches Arctic waters the film’s color scheme is particularly striking, its palette of off-whites, subdued blues and greys counterpointed by the palest shades of amber and peach of the distant sun touching the horizon.

If France’s Cesar film awards honor sound designers, Long Way North’s team deserves one hands down. The creaking of the wooden merchant ship as it rides the waves, hanging pots and pans clanging against a galley wall, the thick crunching sounds of the ship working its way through dense ice sheets towards the North Pole…they all have a “you are there” verisimilitude nothing short of amazing.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler (stop reading right now if you’d rather not know) all’s well at film’s end, with the missing ship recovered and Sacha reunited with her parents. The czar still rules the country however; the Soviet revolution is still 35 years in the future. Perhaps it’s a slight exaggeration, but I suspect if Long Way North was your average American animated feature with their fondness for “hero reforms the entire society” narratives (think Antz, Igor, The Lego Movie, Zootopia, etc.) it would be Sacha leading the revolution and overthrowing the czar, not Lenin.

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.