The Polar Distress

Long Way North is pretty but the voyage falls short

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Long Way North
RPL Film Theatre
February 17–20
2 out of 5

The Americans have long given up on hand-drawn animation. The last feature of note was Winnie the Pooh in 2011, already a rarity six years ago. Europe and Japan, however, still prefer the analogue approach. There’s a warmth and sense of texture that’s missing in CGI movies, as well as a sense of freshness wisecracking 3-D animals can’t provide.

It’s too bad technique is about the only element going for Long Way North. A handsome French-Danish coproduction, the film is an unassuming coming-of-age tale with the most perfunctory of stories. The dialogue is so dull, one can’t help but wonder if the translation was bungled.

The film’s main character is Sasha, a teenager in Czarist Russia who’s not comfortable being a lady-in-waiting. She idolizes her grandfather, an explorer who went missing during an expedition to the North Pole, and she’s thinking about following his steps.

Since her grandparent’s vessel was considered the crown jewel of the Russian fleet, Sasha’s family name has been dragged through the mud. Aiming to rescue gramps’ legacy, the girl heads to the north to locate the ship. Sasha has no money, no plan or friends to help her in this undertaking. All she has is her pluckiness.

The setup isn’t bad but the film focuses on the wrong story points. It takes half the movie to get to the “adventurous” part. As a result, Long Way North feels lethargic despite being just 80 minutes long. An inordinate amount of time is dedicated to Sasha learning the ropes of waitressing after missing her ride. The whole sequence feels like padding. Without it, Long Way North would be similar to a Rankin/Bass hour-long cartoon, and would probably be better.

As beautiful as the animation is, it falls short when it counts. Climatic moments like Sasha’s hired ship breaking into pieces lacks the impact a more competent animator could have provided. The film fares better during the quiet moments, especially since the dialogue doesn’t help its cause.

Long Way North flirts with character complexity: Sasha’s first mate is a shifty, resentful individual not beyond scamming the spirited girl. The movie, however, does little with him. Sasha’s crew turns on her in a flash, but as villains go, they’re not compelling. Neither is the random polar bear that shows up to give the illusion of danger.

The film follows the blueprint of girl empowerment flicks, but has nothing new to add. You would think a movie set in 19th century Russia would take advantage of the period’s gorgeous music. Instead, we get the most disposable electronic score imaginable.

I don’t like having to write this, but Long Way North is for hardcore animation obsessives only. If that’s not you, it’s best to skip this voyage.