Movie Review: ‘The Sea Beast’ or How To Train Your (Sea)dragon
Director: Chris Williams
Writer: Chris Williams and Nell Benjamin,
Stars: Karl Urban, Dan Stevens, Jared Harris
Synopsis: When a young girl stows away on the ship of a legendary sea monster hunter, they launch an epic journey into uncharted waters – and make history to boot.
They say we put monsters on our medieval maps to warn of treacherous voyages; venturing into the unknown was a common thing in the age of sails and sailors never knew if they’d return home. Tall tales were told of humongous, terrifying creatures patrolling the ocean depths. From this era grew the tales of Herman Melville and his legend of Moby Dick. Later, Patrick O’Brian would weave tales of sea explorers in his Jack Aubrey novels. Sea shanties, boundless oceans, and epic adventures became the stuff of legend.
This is the world with which Netflix’s latest animation The Sea Beast shares DNA. Presented as a mix of How To Train Your Dragon and Pirates of the Caribbean, with a splash of Moby Dick thrown in for good measure, The Sea Beast is one of the best animated films Netflix has presented in recent years, happily avoiding the recent budget cuts Netflix has made to their animation department. It features a gorgeously rendered world which practically jumps off of the screen and plenty of dynamic action set pieces which feel fresh and unique in this setting.
We begin with a narration from our young protagonist Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator), an orphan whose parents died at sea while hunting for those great and terrible monsters of the depths, all too real in this world. Maisie reads extensively from books featuring real-life explorers such as Captain Crow (Jared Harris) and his first mate, the swashbuckling, barrel chested Jacob Holland (Karl Urban, who must have left the set of The Boys and carried his Billy Butcher accent directly into the recording studio, minus the swear words). Hoping to escape the orphanage she calls home and avenge her parents, Maisie stows away on board Crow’s ship The Inevitable as they tear off into the horizon in search of the Red Bluster.
The Red Bluster is the most fearsome and elusive of sea beasts, and as such is the biggest target for any and every seagoer. Captain Crow – in the vein of Melville’s Ahab – has made it into his own personal white whale, hoping the capture of it will prove his worth as an adventurer. As they draw ever closer to capturing the beast, however, Maisie realizes the story books she has read might not be as accurate as she thought, and the Red Bluster – or Red as Maisie affectionately names it – is perhaps more of a gentle, misunderstood soul than was first thought. With Jacob in tow, Maisie sets about convincing the world to give the sea beasts another chance, and save Red’s life before Captain Crow launches his deadly spears in its direction.
Directed by Chris Williams, whose credits include Big Hero 6 and Moana, The Sea Beast knows its world and its story well. It doesn’t do anything new, and indeed most viewers – especially anyone who has seen How To Train Your Dragon, – will know exactly where this is all going to go. The destination hardly matters, though, when the journey is this much fun. An early sequence featuring a tracking shot throughout the Inevitable as we meet its hardy crew is sublime and sets us perfectly in its world. A little later Jacob will swing from the masts, diving into the ocean to tackle an incredible, serpent-like sea creature, and your jaw will drop at the technical achievement of it. In amongst all this grandeur are quieter moments of contemplation, such as Maisie resolutely removing the harpoons stuck to Red’s back, or the dawning realization that maybe we shouldn’t canonise our heroes as infallible gods. The message is clear, but gently woven through the narrative.
There are slight niggles: in order to achieve its action-packed sequences, there feels a slight omission to the world-building and the mythology. A subplot featuring a King and Queen waging war against the beasts is barely explored, and their armada little more than cyphers for a third act sequence. Alongside this are the questionable accents (at least to this reviewer’s ear) which feel immersion-breaking after a while. Hator, herself a British actress, adopts a cod-British accent full of ya-hars and aye-ayes that don’t quite stick the landing. Additionally, Red itself feels a little lacking as a formidable creature. The idea is clearly a seafaring version of Toothless, but the lack of definition means little opportunity for Red to emote and as such it’s difficult to empathise with.
Those minor faults notwithstanding, The Sea Beast is one of the more surprising movies of the year; feeling like a fresh take on a rapidly staling narrative, with genuinely gorgeous animation and set pieces, and a depth to match its ocean backdrop, it is one for the whole family and an excellent summer movie. The only loss is that we were robbed of the chance to see this streamer on a big screen.
Grade – A+