‘The Sea Beast’: Film Review

In the latest animated feature from Chris Williams (‘Moana,’ ‘Big Hero 6’), a young orphan joins forces with a legendary hunter of ocean monsters.

Maisie Brumble, the feisty protagonist of The Sea Beast, is a small girl with a gigantic personality and off-the-charts chutzpah. As the story opens she’s determined to claim her place in her seafaring country’s monster-hunting tradition; by the time it wraps, she’s turned that tradition inside out, in ways that are not only incisive and profound but deeply affecting. Chris Williams, whose helming credits include Big Hero 6 and Moana, has made a rousing, terrific-looking film, one whose emotional currents are all the more potent for being underplayed amidst the derring-do.

The frenetic busyness of the opening sequences might suggest we’re being lured into familiar, action-heavy animation territory. To be sure, there’s plenty of strong action, battles and otherwise, in The Sea Beast, along with leavening touches of the sweet and adorable. But as Maisie’s tale unfolds, the questions that she and the movie ask defy expectations. There’s a subversive edge to the film’s idealism as it aims its sights at war, greed and hypocrisy, leaving official lies dismantled and edifices crumbled and, crucially, making way for much better things.

Set in a world of fantastic creatures and tall-ships verisimilitude circa 1700, The Sea Beast weds cartoon stylization with striking photorealism. The rendering of water — the movie’s main milieu — is especially powerful, whether the filmmakers are capturing its surface roil and glitter or plunging into its tranquil depths. The skies have a breathtaking eloquence too, with fire, fog and candlelight effectively conjured as well. But through it all, character nuance is primary.

Eleven-year-old Maisie is brought to vivid life through the superb animation and newcomer Zaris-Angel Hator’s vibrant voice performance. Just as Maisie goes toe-to-toe with celebrated sailors and haughty aristocrats, the young actor more than holds her own with seasoned pros including Jared Harris and Marianne Jean-Baptiste.

Beyond the wider-scale themes at its core, the screenplay by Williams and Nell Benjamin concerns two orphans and their unlikely bond. The first is Maisie, whose monster-hunting parents perished in a fabled clash with giant ocean critters. The second is hunter Jacob Holland (Karl Urban), who also lost his parents at sea. The aftermath of their shipwreck and his rescue by Captain Crow (Harris) are captured with gripping intensity in the movie’s first, brief scene.

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