With its straightforward story and young heroine, Long Way North (★★★★, cert PG, 82 mins) is unmistakably a children’s film. But grown-ups with a penchant for animated tales of adventure will discover much to love in this shimmering little gem.
Sasha, a young 19th-century Russian aristocrat, heads off to the Arctic to search for her missing grandfather, Olukine, and his ship. The animation is as simple as that plot line with director Rémi Chayé eschewing both the sleek CGI of Pixar and the lush detail of Studio Ghibli to create his own brand of animated magic. His characters and backgrounds are sketched with a rudimentary naïvety and there is an occasional jerkiness to the animation, but it doesn’t take long to adjust to the simplicity.
Sasha’s quest to find her beloved grandfather, a brilliant but temperamental explorer, involves her stealing away from her parents in the early morning light, working for a kindly innkeeper and falling in with a rough band of sailors, who reluctantly agree to take her into the depths of the Arctic.
Despite being a product of the 19th century, Sasha is every bit the modern female heroine, following in the intrepid footsteps of Frozen’s Anna and Brave’s Merida. She regularly proves her courage and ingenuity as the pig-headed men around her flounder.
Thankfully, though, Chayé doesn’t make her an invincible superhero. There’s a genuine sense of vulnerability to Sasha that grows as the mission’s prospects become increasingly bleak and some of the sailors start to turn on her.
The film also strikes a good balance between comic diversions, such as Sasha’s time at the inn as she learns, for the first time in her life, what an honest day’s work entails, and moments of genuine peril, including the appearance of an angry polar bear and the spectacular collapse of a wall of ice. And, as Sasha’s journey reaches its conclusion and she discovers the fate of her grandfather, there is no shying away from difficult emotional moments that add up to a touching, if bittersweet denouement.
My enthusiasm for Long Way North is dented only by a couple of disappointing elements. The music, particularly one saccharine pop number as Sasha makes her escape from St Petersburg, should have been consigned to the Arctic along with Olukine’s ship, while I fear the machinations of the Russian court that occupy the opening 20 minutes may put off some youngsters before the real action gets going.
I hope my fears on the latter score are misplaced and a young audience will stick with it. As Sasha and the motley band of sailors she travels with come to discover, perseverance can be rewarded in beautiful ways.