The Sea Beast (2022)
Director: Chris Williams
Screenwriters: Chris Williams, Nell Benjamin
Starring: Karl Urban, Zaris-Angel Hator, Jared Harris, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Dan Stevens
It’s no surprise that The Sea Beast has been Netflix’s most successful animation to date, or that it has been given the Oscar nod for Best Animated Feature. It is the classic combination of adventure, humour, a smart-alec kid, a reluctant adult, animal sidekick and a heart-warming lesson to learn.
Director and writer Chris Williams wrote the wildly popular Walt Disney Animation Moana, and directed the underrated Big Hero 6. Echoes of these stories can be found in The Sea Beast. There’s even a very large crab.
Like Moana, The Sea Beast begins with a story of a terrible monster as a group of wide-eyed children listen intently. Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator) lives in a home for hunter orphans – a completely normal thing to exist in a world where sea beasts roam freely under the waves, reigning terror over a completely innocent mankind. Maisie is nothing but proud of the job her parents had, of the part they played in this terrible war. And she has big plans to follow in their footsteps.
Once she is told off for telling scary stories at bedtime, Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator) is warned that she’d better not try escaping again. But, like all the best child heroes, Maisie will not do as she’s told.
The cheerful ‘see you tomorrow!’ from one of her bunk mates that follows her out of the window is a pretty good indicator of her escape success rate thus far.
We are then transported to the hunter ship, The Inevitable, manned by the formidable Captain Crow (Jared Harris), first mate Sarah Sharpe (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and second-in-command Jacob Holland (Karl Urban) as they fight a jade green Prickleback. The animation of the beasts is very smart. They are impressively huge, and obviously intent on destroying the ship, but their lack of scales, overly sharp teeth or drool (even inside the nostrils are smooth and goo-free) means they are fully appropriate for children and not too scary. Not as scary as Te Kā anyhow. And it’s always impressive how animators make their voiceless animals so expressive, so easy to read.
After a brief meeting, Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator) adopts Jacob (Karl Urban), or ‘Captain Someday’ as she christens him, as her guardian and stows aboard his ship. At first, Captain Crow (Jared Harris) is friendly albeit gruff, warming to Maisie once he realises she has hunter blood in her veins. ‘I like this kid, she’s all vinegar’.
However, it doesn’t take long before his true nature is revealed. Crow (Jared Harris) is the single-visioned, meat-headed metaphor for those who distrust change. As Jacob (Karl Urban) and Maisie are flung overboard and their bond grows stronger, it is down to Jacob to act as the bridge between Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator) and the adults who are damaging her future (and very much her past) for their own gain.
The relationship between Maisie and Jacob is as wholesome and tender as you would expect from a creative who previously worked with Baymax.
The film morphs into something more akin to How to Train Your Dragon as Maisie and the Red Bluster, ‘Red’, become friends and share an understanding the adults around her cannot fathom. As the beast becomes more friend than monster, Jacob and Maisie start to question this so-called war they have been conditioned to fight in.
The parallels to the real world are not subtle. The humans of this world have treated the sea beasts terribly, the scars can be seen along Red’s back as the hunters’ spears protrude. Jacob says slightly shamefaced, ‘We kill ‘em lass. We don’t study ‘em’. But there are some really interesting and complex ideas in this film, like the fallibility of history and how it changes based on who controls the stories we tell each other. Or how it is children who often end up in the firing line due to the actions of adults. It isn’t as simple as good versus bad. Red has caused as much damage as the humans have. But boy oh boy you aren’t half on her side.
Another echo from Williams’ previous films is the representation of difference on show. This is obviously something important to Williams. Men and women are equally beautiful, bald, ugly, strong. Women are admirals and rulers, sea beasts, scared and fierce in equal measure. The screen is filled with able and disabled bodies, different races and ages, and it isn’t referenced once. It’s a breath of fresh air.
While The Sea Beast isn’t breaking new ground it is a great film; the overuse of me instead of my (we get it, you’re sort of pirates) aside. It’s funny, exciting, beautiful, and treats those familiar kids’ films tropes with respect and admiration. It is a hopeful film too: maybe the inevitable isn’t the demise of sea beasts but the fact humans will eventually figure it out to do the right thing.