Charles Solomon Reviews “Long Way North” – Animation Scoop

Charles Solomon Reviews “Long Way North”

The Long Way North (Tout en haut du monde) is latest entry in the recent string of smaller, hand-drawn animated films from France. It’s not as polished in its look or storytelling as some of its predecessors, but it’s a promising debut for first time director Rémi Chayé,

Sacha (voice by Chloé Dunn), the daughter of an aristocratic St. Petersburg family, adored her explorer grandfather, who disappeared when he attempted to become the first man to reach the North Pole. She dreams of finding his lost ship, the Davaï, an icebreaker so expensive, the Imperial government has posted a one million ruble reward for its recovery.

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Setting off on her own, Sacha manages to wangle passage aboard the Norge to the frozen waters off Spitsbergen. En route, she wins the respect and affection of the rough-and-tumble crew during a series of rather formula adventures. Of course, they eventually find the Davaï, as Sacha somehow has her grandfather’s notes, indicating his departure from the planned route of his expedition.

Unlike so many recent American films, Long Way North doesn’t talk the audience to death. Chayé includes some effective moments of Sacha quietly observing the sea and ice. However, it sometimes feel like there are a few too many quiet moments in the film. Although it’s an Arctic adventure story, Long Way North often feels slow and longer than its 81 minutes.

Chayé was a key artist on The Secret of Kells, and the influence of Cartoon Saloon can clearly be seen in Long Way North. Although the self-inked characters lack the elegant linework of Kells, Sacha and Katch (Tom Perkins), the young seaman who befriends her, both look a lot like Brandon. And when the pair climbs the rigging to enjoy a better look at the ocean, viewers will be reminded of Brandon and Aisling scrambling through treetops. The simple animation is generally adequate, although seldom more. Some of the stylized backgrounds have a handsome painterly look; others feel less inspired.

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While Sacha is a relief from the spunky-but-slightly klutzy heroines that populate American animated features, wouldn’t a girl from her upper crust milieu know enough to take some money when she runs away? It’s a strange lapse in an otherwise intelligent character. Sadly, many of the supporting characters feel less developed and more one-note than the heroine.

Like Balto, Long Way North depicts a long, difficult journey through the frozen north, and like Balto, the results suggest that kind of adventure is not a great subject for an animated film. From Bambi wandering through the blizzard to Chiyoko dashing through icy pre-WW II Tokyo in Millennium Actress, animators have succeeded in making audiences feel the cold of winter. But the repetitive nature of a prolonged struggle against the elements doesn’t seem to lend itself to animation.

A montage of Sacha working as a servant at the White Bear Inn in Arkhangelsk while she awaits passage north plays much better. (Chayé wisely doesn’t clutter the sequence with unnecessary dialogue or songs.) The viewer sees Sacha learning to perform menial tasks she’s always relegated to servants, getting better at them and developing pride in the first real work she’s ever done. But the tasks vary, and the audience sees her movements grow surer and more confident. Out on the ice, it’s just one faltering step after another.

Despite some caveats, Long Way North is a promising debut film, and a new director with a personal vision is always welcome in animation.

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Charles Solomon

Charles Solomon

Internationally known animation historian and critic, Charles Solomon has written over 15 books books including Enchanted Drawings: The History Of Animation, The Art of Disney's Frozen, and The Making of Peanuts Animation. Solomon's "The Art of Toy Story 3" will be published by Chronicle this spring.
Charles Solomon
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  • MegaChaosGelee

    I’m soo looking forward to this. Hasn’t got a chance to play in cinemas over here, so I’ll hope for a soon release on Blu-ray. The art style without the black lines looks breathtaking and dreamy.