The robust family adventure “The Sea Beast,” appearing today on Netflix, is one of the biggest movie surprises of the year so far. Fun, smart, and sneakily deep, it has elements that will be familiar to families around the world. There’s a little bit of “Moana,” a backdrop of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” a thread of “How to Train Your Dragon,” and even a few nods to Kaiju movies in this rollicking animated movie that features some actual filmmaking instead of just bright colors to hold the attention of little kids. The action scenes have been very carefully constructed and considered, but it’s the script that will sneak up on you with themes worth discussing with the kids when it’s over. “You can be a hero and still be wrong” isn’t exactly a brand-new theme in adventure fiction, but it feels like a more important one in today’s world, and it’s nice to see a fantasy film for families that doesn’t talk down to kids. The animated movies that have sustained in history trust children to follow complex plots and themes. It’s great to see that kind of trust reemerge in a film that never forgets to be entertaining too.
Chris Williams (who co-directed “Big Hero 6” and “Moana”) makes his confident solo debut with a script he co-wrote with Nell Benjamin that subverts classic seafaring adventure mythology. After a brief prologue that introduces us to Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator) as she flees her orphanage in search of greater adventure, Williams and his team stage an impressive battle at sea between two monster-hunting ships and a massive beast. Immediately, there’s a sense that the craftsmanship here is high as the sequence unfolds with the swooping tentacles of a Kraken-esque beast and the ships trying to defeat it. “The Sea Beast” takes place in the middle of a great war between monsters and men, the latter funded by a King (Jim Carter) and Queen (Doon Mackichan) who clearly don’t mind putting people in harm’s way but would never risk their own safety.
The other hero of this tall tale is Jacob Holland (Karl Urban, finding a nice vulnerable heroism in his voice work), who grew up on a hunting ship called the Inevitable, run by the ruthless Captain Crow (Jared Harris). The Ahab of this tale, Crow represents the old guard hunter, someone who has been doing this so long that he’s obsessed with hunting the creature that took his eye, no matter the cost. When Maisie stows away on their ship as they hunt said the sea beast, a red giant known as the Bluster, everything changes. Through a series of action-driven events, Maisie and Jacob discover that everything they’ve been told about the battle between man and monster has been a myth.
To be fair, “The Sea Beast” takes a bit too long to build up steam, and there’s a tighter 100-minute version of this film within its two-hour run-time. I wanted to tighten it up in a few places, and I do wish the world-building was a little stronger. Some of the locations also feel thinly designed, although if all the time and budget went to the beautifully rendered monsters, that’s understandable.
Most of all, and this is rare nowadays in American animation, I admired the script of “The Sea Beast,” one that intertwines those aforementioned obvious influences into something refreshingly daring. This movie takes narrative risks in that it’s a monster-hunting movie that’s ultimately anti-violence. It’s the kind of thing good parents look for in that it both entertains and provokes conversation. And it’s a hopeful sign that Netflix could start to become a more prominent voice in original animation. As long as they’re willing to make movies as rich as “The Sea Beast.”