Film Review – The Sea Beast
The Sea Beast
The Sea Beast (2022) is a surprisingly effective animated adventure. It has several elements that calls to mind the likes of Moana (2016) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010) but adds a level of intelligence more thought provoking than expected. How many family films would introduce a theme as complex as “You can be a hero and still be wrong?” That is the kind of subject matter that can spur conversation long after the credits roll. Far too few animated productions would tackle something as multifaceted, opting for a light show meant to distract viewers for a few hours. Thankfully, this encourages the audience – young and old – to think outside of the box.
There’s also heavy emphasis on myth making, legends, and how storytelling can be manipulated into propaganda. We’re introduced to a world where enormous sea monsters and their human hunters have waged a war that has lasted seemingly forever. Tales of beasts ravaging coastal villages are juxtaposed with heroic hunters bravely fighting them back. The war has lasted so long that characters and battles have become folklore in books and bedtime stories. But how did it begin? Which side struck the first blow? Who is really at fault? These questions examine how events are twisted as they are passed down from generation to generation. Did pirates and sailors really do battle with monstrous, multi-tentacled krakens long ago? Or were they encountering what we now know are whales?
Even if we are to ignore these well-developed topics, on the surface this is simply a lot of fun. Director Chris Williams (with cowriter Nell Benjamin) structures a rip roaring, high seas narrative. Set pieces incorporate familiar action beats – with captains shouting out orders as crew members scramble around the deck. But the visual style and editing (Mark Mancina) add a new wrinkle to the execution. An early action scene features a ship named The Inevitable doing battle with a Kaiju-like sea monster. The camera loops and twirls as it follows its characters, and when the ship gets turned so that it is nearly standing sideways, the masts, ropes, and sails are morphed into an obstacle course for the crew to traverse.
Although there is plenty of action, the writing and direction puts equal focus on the human story. We meet our central players. Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator) is a young orphan who is initially enthralled with becoming a hunter. However, once she sees a hunt take place up close, her entire mindset starts to change. Maisie develops an attachment to Jacob Holland (Karl Urban), a hunter whose ability to take down the monsters has made him famous. Jacob is the protégé of The Inevitable’s Captain Crow (Jared Harris). Crow is a hardened man who has a soft spot for Jacob, but whose near-death experience with the elusive red beast known as “The Bluster” has turned him into this universe’s Captain Ahab.
The main story thread involves Maisie and Jacob’s growing relationship, especially when they finally meet and interact with The Bluster (nicknamed “Red” by Maisie). And yet, my attention gravitated toward Captain Crow. The narrative does not depict characters in good guy/bad guy terms, but if there is a “villain,” it is Crow. He is such a well-defined villain because his motivation and actions are not merely villainous. The writing allows us to understand him, to see how he treats Jacob like a son, his ignorance toward Red and other sea creatures, and his desire for respect from his native kingdom. If anything, Crow is a tragic figure, because his past has clouded his judgment. His pursuit for revenge places him and his crew unknowingly in danger. Maisie and Jacob’s story is good, but the energy noticeably picks up whenever Captain Crow appears on screen.
If there is something to nitpick here, it’s the world building. While the themes are well done, the world feels oddly small. The port and nearby kingdom features stunning designs, highlighted by a shimmering waterfront castle. With its high towers and aqua-themed tapestries, the location looks like a combination of Disneyland and SeaWorld. Sadly, we don’t see enough of this place – how it operates, how people live or move within its walls. We’re given a gorgeous location but spend little time exploring it. The same can be said about the deserted island Maisie and Jacob find themselves stranded on. The island looks like it contains multitudes of surprises waiting to be discovered, from its pink sands to the creatures that bury their eggs in the dirt. But this place feels like a rest stop, where its only purpose is to get us from one plot point to another. Even Red – the enormous sea beast at the center of everyone’s attention – acts as a vessel for other characters, without individual nuance. Red lacks the personality and charm that made Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon such an endearing character.
The Sea Beast may not hit the heights of a great animated film, but it is a very good one. It presents a world that doesn’t have easy answers, where doing the right thing may not always be the popular choice. The fact that it has the ambition to handle such material makes it better than your run of the mill family affair. Although Netflix can sometimes be a wasteland where films settle into obscurity, here is an offering that is worth seeking out.