To describe a work of art as laborious may not conjure up positive sympathy towards such work, yet that may be the greatest strength of Remi Chaye's Long Way North, a recent animated film coming out of France. Laborious in the sense that it shows a lot of hard work and it shows the bristled obstacles that chip away at the protagonist and the rest of the characters. And through the film's sense of pragmatism, detailing a late 19th century sea voyage towards the north pole as one girl, Sasha, searches for her grandfather and lost ship, the film belittles itself when the narrative alters direction by offering a disservice to its otherwise wonderful heroine.
I will explain the shortcomings first as a preface to the aforementioned 'laborious' traits that I found so impressive. A general theme wraps around the flaws which can be categorized as convenient and it may have something to do with a directionless intoxication of endowing the female character with too much strength. Now, this is not to say I advocate a more passive Sasha. Her motives are clear and honorable and her independence is gratifying. Sasha has a fiery spirit surrounded by a world so cold and lifeless. Yet, breaking social tradition is not mutually conducive to an excellent character arc. Sasha seems to prove her strength multiple times. While one time does it justice, where she shows a crew of men she can work just as well as them, the film seems to default to this scenario in subsequent pivotal scenes.
If the crew is in a life-threatening situation...Sasha steps in an isolated moment detached from any sort of mental or physical cost and saves the day. She is said to fifteen and none of her actions regard her youth or her lack of judgement due to inexperience, she's almost allowed to do anything with know consequences. Even when the male crew rightfully questions her motives and information on the whereabouts of her grandfather's ship, the story resorts to this deux ex machina that elevates Sasha's struggle immediately to a trouncing victory. Basically, once the voyage initiates (probably twenty to twenty five minutes into the film) things become too easy for her. It doesn't help that this 'deus ex machina' moment arrives in a way that confused me as I wasn't sure what I was looking at was a dream or the real reality of the diegetic world. It slightly perturbed me in that the otherwise shaky logic was totally ignored for an otherwise beautiful moment so that the conflict's challenge can be rendered easier...a visionary cheat code, if you will.
And it is a shame because between these pivotal moments there is this naturalistic and almost gritty approach to observing a voyage in the scathing icy seas north of Russia and the brisk, suffocating void of deathly whiteness in the Arctic. Chaye is very thorough with his presentation of seafaring, of traversing a large boat through a world of icebergs, as well as the mental cost of exerting precious energy to save what can be deemed expendable. That is emphasized with a crew, led by the prideful and honest Lund and his first mate, Larson. There is a nice chemistry developing between the band of men where we easily recognize not just the faces of these individuals, but their personalities and convictions to their mission and to Sasha. So when things become wretched and morose, tension gradually defines its dramatic contours and character arcs are appropriately mapped to survival. Of course, that shatters, but it is great while it lasts. Though I must point out that the ending is satisfying, only the stain of those foci in the journey bleed out.
And while the narrative runs into potholes (or, yea, plot holes...kind of intended) the visuals soar to fascinating heights. It is simplistic, painterly, and leaves many opportunities for interesting lighting techniques. Chaye dunks half of his film in golden hour sunlight and those moments, usually still moments, are obnoxiously beautiful. And it may be the visuals, along with the infectious heroine, that will ultimately draw audiences into Long Way North. Simplicity and naturalness dominate the film in a world where many people expect fantastical events to unfold because it is animation. I deeply admire Chaye for creating a story such as this, especially for his debut feature. Tinkering with narrative structure and critically thinking about those big, pivotal moments are keys for his films to mature and dazzle with strength. Maybe he can rival the complexity of Sylvain Chomet and Tomm Moore. For now, though, Long Way North is more than a decent experience.