Long Way North, 2015.
Directed by Remi Chaye
Featuring the voice talents of Peter Hudson, Vivienne Vermes, Chloe Dunn
St Petersburg, 1882. After the disappearance of her explorer grandfather on an expedition to the North Pole, teenage aristocrat Sasha sets out to discover what happened to him and his ship and save the reputation of her family.
Animation from Japan last week with When Marnie Was There. And more this week from the French/Danish collaboration Long Way North. Even better, it’s hand-drawn, with the freshness, almost artlessness, that sets it apart from some of the sterile computer generated fare we’re served up so regularly.
And, indeed, the film is beautifully crafted. There’s none of the hard lines associated with other studios and it emphasises light and shadow in a way which, while not subtle, is still effective and invites the audience to exercise some imagination while watching. It really comes into its own in the second half, which is devoted to teenager Sacha’s expedition to the North Pole, by sea and on foot, battling against the harsh conditions. The ferocious blizzard seems to blow into your face with a monotony that threatens hypnotic stupor.
The fact that the second half is so good points to the film’s weaknesses. For starters, it’s very much a movie of two halves, the first looking more like a historical costume drama as it paves the way for Sacha’s epic adventure. She adored her explorer grandfather, and has inherited his stubbornness and outspoken nature, and it’s that part of her character that dashes her father’s political ambitions. At her first ball, the guest of honour is a government minister, who she challenges about the fate of her grandfather. It suits his political agenda to take offence at her directness, her father loses the promotion he’d hoped for and Sacha is in disgrace.
All of which spurs her to go on her own voyage of discovery in the second half. She experiences life with ordinary people – working in an inn to pay for her passage, life on board ship with the sailors, a world away from her aristocratic upbringing – and undergoes the extremes of the arctic climate. The DVD release last week of Scott of the Antarctic (1948) covered similar ground, but down south: in this adventure, you do actually see people’s breath in the sub-zero temperatures, but none of the men ever sprout a solitary whisker.
The BFI-funded Children’s Cinema Club is behind the film’s arrival in UK cinemas yet, if it is aimed at children, debut director Remi Chaye and his team don’t display much understanding of their audience. Yes, it’s beautiful to look at and, yes, it has a teenager at the heart of the narrative, but the first half will completely lose them. It’s too wordy, too political and, for a younger audience, just tedious and slow, making it debateable whether they’ll stick around mentally for the second half. Curiously, it’s likely to find more favour with adults, who will lap up the animation and the general escapism of the story.
Long Way North doesn’t sail into new waters as far as the plot is concerned: it comes close to being formulaic, even if it does tell its story with an appealing directness. Its biggest plus is the beautiful animation, but there’s such a mis-match between it and the story that the result is a film that doesn’t really know who it’s talking to. And all that beauty gets stranded in the icy wilderness.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★