Hard to find these days, but still exquisite, hand-drawn 2D animation shines in “Long Way North,” a French-Danish production that’s as stimulating and visually satisfying as big-studio fare.
Lacking flashy action and in-your-face graphics, and instead containing down-to-earth brands of bravery and somber atmospheres, the film by Rene Chaye (whose credits include the impressive “The Secret of Kells”) is inspired by the Antarctic expedition of Ernest Shackleton, which Chaye and the film’s three writers have relocated to the top end of the earth.
Its protagonist, Sacha (voiced by Christa Theret, in French) is — no stranger to contemporary animated cinema — an intrepidly questing teenage girl.
Her journey begins in 1880s St. Petersburg.
Sacha’s grandfather was a renowned explorer whose ship vanished while en route to the North Pole. The tsar is offering a substantial reward to anyone who can locate the vessel, but, so far, nada.
Furious when she overhears the arrogant Prince Tomsky (Fabien Briche) — whom her parents hope she’ll marry — deriding her grandfather’s navigation skills, Sacha, armed with documents that prove Tomsky wrong, embarks on a journey to restore her grandfather’s reputation.
Shedding her demeanor of privilege, Sacha hops on a train, works as a kitchen maid, and barters away some precious earrings.
She convinces a ship captain (Loic Houdre), who, too, is searching for her grandfather’s ship, to let her sail with him.
Additional characters include a roguish but redemptive first mate (Remi Caillebot) and a slightly flirty underling (Tom Morton).
The dialogue and voice readings sound storybookish and stilted at times, but the film’s use of animation makes up for that shortcoming.
Bucking prevailing norms, Chaye’s figures don’t have outlines. Clothing and scenery consist of flat patches of color. Viewers are impelled to look at the faces witness the characters’ emotions.
Chaye captures both the beauty and the danger of the arctic landscapes.
Icebergs, glaciers, mist and wolves, in whites and subdued blues and grays, make for a chilly picture. The warmth of the sun, rendered in amber and peach, complements the frozen factor.
There’s also suspense — a scene in which a ship gets caught between an iceberg and a collapsing glacier is particularly memorable.
These and other highlights, including a blizzard, demonstrate how effective hand-drawn and 2D animation can be as a means of storytelling.
The down-to-earth quality of the human dynamics, which are completely absent of superhuman behavior, give the characters a credibility that allows audiences to believe their lives in these treacherous waters are at stake. Their decency makes us truly care about their fate.
Screening at the Roxie in San Francisco, the film, in French, will appeal to anyone old enough to read subtitles and is able to appreciate the power of simplicity.
Long Way North
Starring Voices of Christa Theret, Remi Caillebot, Loic Houdre, Tom Morton
Written by Fabrice de Costil, Claire Paoletti, Patricia Valeix
Directed by Remi Chaye
Running time 1 hour, 21 minutes