In a world dominated by computer- animated films both full-length and short, hand-drawn animated movies are not only refreshing, they’re borderline novel. French director Rémi Chayé (who worked as an animator on 2009’s The Secret of Kells) proves this incontrovertibly with Long Way North, a film about a young Russian girl who abandons the aristocracy in search of her grandfather Oloukine, an explorer who disappeared some years back while looking for a serviceable route through the North Pole.
Sasha (Christa Théret) is your typical brash young character who ignores her father’s overbearing wishes, thinks nothing of insulting the heartless head of her government’s science ministry and who is much more in her element poring over charts and maps than attending fancy balls. This kind of storyline is obviously nothing we haven’t seen before (that’s not how young women are supposed to act!). But the sense that Sasha’s loss is so unbearable she’d leave behind a comfortable life surpasses the cut-and-paste nature of, oh say, Disney films, wherein characters are generally thrust into extraordinary circumstances rather than actively seeking them out. It’s a little bit uplifting but also relatable, whether the viewer is a young person who uses a sense of immortality to charge headlong into the unknown or someone with more experience who might chuckle to themselves knowing that sometimes the only way to actually learn is to make the mistakes.
This makes for something entirely more artistic than the usual animated fare, and different enough as to elicit an actual, palpable emotional response. The journey plays out on literal and figurative levels, and while Sasha’s growth is steady, what’s more important is that it is measureable. We observe organic change in how she carries herself. The fleshing out of her character is never rushed to the point it seems unbelievable, however. We just can’t help but root for her the whole way, even as she makes naïve mistakes in the earlier bits of the film that result in a month of manual labor in a small boarding house or as she navigates her way through the rough-and-tumble sailors of the ship she hires to help complete her task.
Through flashbacks we piece together that Sasha and her grandfather are kindred spirits, and without overtly shoving it in our faces, we get a sense that the missing Oloukine practically calls to her from somewhere in the icy expanses of the far north. This propels her ever further into both maturity and independence, and by the time we reach the climax, Sasha is almost an entirely different person. These are important lessons for young people, maybe even more so for young women who are so constantly bombarded with the idea that one day their prince will come and then they’ll never have to worry about making their own way in the world ever again.
Long Way North’s style is simple yet effective, and though the palette is of minimal, muted colors, the backdrops of locations such as St. Petersburg, a small coastal village or the white vastness of the Pole serve as recognizable place-setters and also to signify the various chapters of Sasha’s trip. The simplicity of the art direction never subtracts from the final product; if anything, it redirects our attention to the importance of character development or the various calamities our heroine manages to escape while creating a strong sense of place and momentum. Thus, we’re left with a lot to think about, which makes Long Way North a no-brainer for families, yes, but for all ages in between. It’s the kind of film that sticks with you long after it’s over and that celebrates the good things born of love and tenacity.
Long Way North
Directed by Rémi Chayé
Center for Contemporary Arts,