Move over, Dora. There’s another explorer in town! In “Long Way North,” a 14-year-old Russian girl named Sacha sets out to find her grandfather, whose ship went missing en route to the North Pole. It’s a quest as daunting as any a Disney heroine has faced, and one that this Gertrude Bell-like young lady — the daughter of disapproving wealthy oligarchs — must swallow her pride in order to undertake. Driven by intellectual curiosity and her commitment to the lost explorer, Sacha seeks adventure instead of an easy marriage to the Russian equivalent of Prince Charming, making for the sort of cartoon discerning parents are constantly seeking to enrich their kids’ imaginations.
In both tone and approach, this animated treasure couldn’t be more different from the lavish high-tech toons competing in the American marketplace, while in France, where director Rémi Chayé was born, a project as personal as “Long Way North” doesn’t seem nearly so alien. There, animation isn’t so much an industry as an extension of the country’s comics (or bande dessinée) culture, in which it’s perfectly normal for epic stories — the sort that might elsewhere inspire novels — to be interpreted as lavishly illustrated graphic novels, and where cartoons are often greenlit on the same principle.
Though it hasn’t been said nearly often enough, the “auteur theory” put forth by French film critics — which acknowledges the creative stamp an artistic director leaves on his work — is never more true than when applied to animation (see also “The Red Turtle” and “April and the Extraordinary World”). In this case, Chayé collaborated with screenwriter Claire Paoletti on an idea inspired by Ernest Shackleton’s exploits, and specifically diary accounts of how his ship Endurance was trapped in pack ice during one of his attempts to set Antarctic records.
Flipping the poles and also the continent of origin, Chayé and Paoletti invent a character named Oloukine, who found the Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but went missing on an expedition to plant the Russian flag at the North Pole. The tsar offers a million rubles to whoever finds his ship, the Navai, and yet — in “The Sword and the Stone” tradition — none of the burly, marine-trained men have even come close, leaving the victory to someone so easily underestimated. Meanwhile, Sacha (voiced by Christa Théret in French and Chloé Dunn in the new English dub, though in both cases, the performances sound less like acting than someone reading a children’s book aloud) isn’t interested in the cash prize: Driven by memories of her grandfather, she wants only to preserve his memory, and for her, finding Oloukine’s journal would be a reward above rubles.
After being humiliated at a society ball in St. Petersburg, Sacha decides to ignore her parents’ wishes, stealing a horse from the family stable and hopping a train as far north as it will take her, even if it means being forced to ride in cargo among the peasants and stowaways. As Sacha pushes forward on her mission, she is defined by these two traits: first, an aptitude for scientific learning that would have been nothing short of scandalous for a young woman in 1882, and second, a willingness to ignore her aristocratic roots and do whatever it takes to reach her goal, even if it means scrubbing dishes in a harbor bar. Sacha is the sort of role model parents will be glad to discuss with their children, especially as her decisions often have unexpected, even dangerous consequences, and though the story is simple, it’s not without many satisfying twists along the way. (“Long Way North” won the audience award at the Annecy film festival, where it premiered in 2015.)
Confined to a stunningly low seven-figure budget, Chayé — who had served as assistant director on “The Painting” and “The Secret of Kells” — opts for a similarly bold picture-book style on his own feature debut, though the color schemes and artistic influences naturally favor late-19th-century Russian realist painters (Chayé has cited Ilya Repin, among others). The director’s boldest stylistic decision was to do away with outlines, which of course is truer to the way the human eye sees the world, but flies in the face of cartoon tradition. Only characters’ noses warrant a helpful squiggle, while the remainder of any given frame is flattened and reduced to blocks of color. As a result, landscapes seem to have leapt off 1920s railway posters, while character scenes look quite unlike any other animated film in recent memory — and for a film made under such modest circumstances, that’s a feat unto itself.