Film Review: ‘Long Way North’

Impressive French cartoon from the assistant director of 'The Secret of Kells' invents an Arctic expedition led by a young female role model.

Christa Théret, Féodor Atkine, Thomas Sagols, Rémi Caillebot, Audrey Sablé, Fabien Briche, Loïc Houdré, Delphine Braillo. (French dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2262345/

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.

Film Review: 'Long Way North'

Reviewed at Annecy Animation Film Festival, June 16, 2015. Running time: 78 MIN. (Original title: “Tout en haut du monde”)

Production: (Animated — France-Denmark) A Shout! Factory (in U.S.), Diaphana Films (in France) release of a Rony Deyens presentation of a Sacrebleu Prods., Maybe Movies production, in co-production with 2 Minutes, France 3 Cinéma, Nørlum, with the participation of Danish Film Institute, West Danish Film Fund, Copenhagen Film Fund, France Télévisions, Canal Plus, Cine Plus, TV 5 Monde, Urban Distribution Intl., Diaphana Distribution. Producer: Ron Dyens, Henri Magalon. Co-producers: Jean-Michel Spiner, Claus Toksvig Kjaer, Frederik Villumsen.

Crew: Director: Rémi Chayé. Screenplay: Claire Paoletti, Patricia Valeix; dialogue: Fabrice de Costil. Editor: Benjamin Massoubre.

With: Christa Théret, Féodor Atkine, Thomas Sagols, Rémi Caillebot, Audrey Sablé, Fabien Briche, Loïc Houdré, Delphine Braillo. (French dialogue)

More Film

  • The Lion King

    Film News Roundup: PETA Sponsors Rescued Lion in Jon Favreau's Name

    In today’s film news roundup, PETA honors Jon Favreau for “The Lion King,” “Tigers Are Not Afraid” gets a theatrical release, a Kirk Franklin biopic is in development and “The Sixth Sense” gets an anniversary showing in Philadelphia. HONOR The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is sponsoring a rescued lion to honor director [...]

  • Tokyo Director-in-Focus-at-Japan-Now

    Nobuhiko Obayashi set as Japanese Director in Focus at Tokyo Film Festival

    Indie director, Nobuhiko Obayashi will be feted as the director in focus at the Japan Now section of this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. The festival will give a world premiere to his “Labyrinth of Cinema.” Supporting his art by shooting commercials, Obayashi is an indie whose dreamy works have influenced numerous other directors in [...]

  • Jimmi Simpson Joins Russell Crowe Movie

    Jimmi Simpson Joins Russell Crowe Thriller 'Unhinged' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jimmi Simpson will play a key role in “Unhinged,” Variety has learned. He joins an impressive cast that includes Oscar-winner Russell Crowe and Caren Pistorius. Solstice Studios is producing the psychological thriller, which is currently filming in New Orleans. “Unhinged” centers on a woman named Rachel (Pistorius), who leans on her horn at the wrong [...]

  • David Crosby

    David Crosby Says New Documentary 'Remember My Name' Is Like 'Being Naked in Public’

    “It’s not easy. It’s hard being naked in public,” David Crosby, the legendary troubadour of classic rock, reflected at Tuesday night’s New York City premiere of “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” “I don’t know what to do here. There’s no guitars, no drums,” he laughed. Directed by newcomer A.J. Eaton and produced by the legendary [...]

  • Javier Bardem Dune

    Javier Bardem in Talks to Play King Triton in Disney's 'Little Mermaid'

    Javier Bardem is in talks to play King Triton in Disney’s live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid.” Halle Bailey will portray the Ariel, a mermaid princess who dreams of being a human, while Melissa McCarthy is playing her evil aunt Ursula. Harry Styles is also in early talks to play Prince Eric. “The Little Mermaid” [...]

  • UglyDolls

    STX Tries to Put Flops Behind It as It Searches for Star Executive, Fresh Capital

    After a series of film flops and an aborted initial public offering, STX Entertainment is battling mounting skepticism that it can survive in an increasingly unforgiving movie business. As it hustles to find $500 million in fresh capital, the company, which operates in the red according to financial disclosures, is simultaneously hoping to attract a [...]

  • Ryan Simpkins

    Ryan Simpkins Joins Fox-Disney's 'Fear Street' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Ryan Simpkins has joined Fox-Disney’s second installment of 20th Century Fox and Chernin Entertainment’s “Fear Street” trilogy, based on the novels by R.L. Stine. Leigh Janiak is helming all three films. Previously announced cast includes Gillian Jacobs, Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, McCabe Slye, Kiana Madeira, Olivia Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Ashley Zukerman, Fred Hechinger, Julia [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content