If you’re feeling a little impatient to see “Moana” next week, another young woman is setting off on an animated hero’s journey this weekend. “Long Way North” is a charming and simple feature that mines themes of family and determination in the midst of challenging trials.
The young Russian woman is Sasha (voiced by Christa Théret), a 15-year-old child of wealth and privilege living in 1880s St. Petersburg. Her grandfather Oloukine (Féodor Atkine) was a famous explorer who vanished two years earlier after setting out on a quest to find the North Pole. His ship, the Davai, was never found, and now local authorities are preparing to name a museum in his honor.
Sasha inherited her grandfather’s exploring spirit, so when she discovers a note amid his writings that suggests he may have taken a different route than assumed, she determines to find the Davai. After an appeal to her aristocratic contacts proves fruitless, Sasha decides to make her own way to the Great White North, and begins a classic hero’s quest into the unknown.
Unlike “Moana” and almost every other animated feature produced these days, “Long Way North” tells its story with traditional cell animation. But even this cell animation is so streamlined it would have to be described as minimalist. Still, the basic look and feel creates a kind of simple beauty and grace for the film that works just fine, thanks to the strength of its story.
Once Sasha leaves home, she encounters challenge after challenge. Stripped of her wealth and luxuries, she has to work in a seaport tavern for a month before she can find a ship willing to take up the hunt for the Davai. And when she does, she still has to convince the ship’s Captain Lund (Loïc Houdré) to bring her along, though he’d much rather split the finder’s fee with his hardened crew.
All of this is just a lead-up to the real battle through icy waters and threatening glaciers, which results in numerous life and death battles with both the elements and the creatures that live in them.
Through it all, director Rémi Chayé weaves a paced and nuanced story that balances its artistry against a grounded narrative. The soundtrack, which leans in more of a pop music direction, is much more complementary than you might think.
That being said, “Long Way North” may be a better fit for older children, who will be more suited to the film’s subtler style. Parents may also want to make sure to take their kids to the English dubbed version of the film (the Broadway Centre will also be showing “Long Way North” in French with English subtitles).
But audiences of all ages will appreciate the film’s powerful message about the courage and determination it takes to strike out into the unknown. Chayé’s effort is a simple film, and it is all the more effective because of its simplicity.
“Long Way North” is rated PG for some peril and mild language; running time: 81 minutes.