The great mythical sea monsters seen on medieval and Renaissance maps were not always meant to be taken literally. Most practical nautical maps and charts — the kind actually used on actual ships by actual sailors — didn’t include them; if you wanted sea monsters on your fancy map, you had to pay extra. True, tall tales abounded of huge, terrifying creatures that lurked in distant waters, but most of the beasts seen on these documents were ornamental, mere symbols of the fact that the oceans held more mysteries than we knew what to do with. Even back then, in other words, they were there largely to inspire the sedentary observer’s imagination.
In the new Netflix animated feature The Sea Beast, these giant monsters are, of course, very, very real. The film takes place during a time when the waves were ruled by ships that battle these unspeakable terrors from the deep. But there’s a similar leap of imagination at play here. Unlike many modern-day animated films, which find inspiration in fantasy and present us with unique, fanciful designs, the world of The Sea Beast is so realistically rendered, so detailed and physical, that much of the time it feels like a live-action adventure. It’s so thoroughly immersive it might make you believe in sea monsters.
Even the human character designs feel only a couple of degrees removed from reality. That’s not to say anyone would mistake the broad-faced and anvil-cheeked Captain Crow (voiced by Jared Harris) — the veteran hunter whose red-sailed ship, the Inevitable, is the most storied of all monster-chasing vessels — for a living, breathing actor. His features have been stretched out a bit too far for that. (And besides, this isn’t a Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within–style attempt to pioneer fake humans onscreen.) But Crow is a far cry from the angular, stylized faces and figures we tend to see in animation nowadays. The same could be said for his first mate and future heir, the amply barrel-chested ace harpooner Jacob Holland (Karl Urban). There’s something physically very believable about these characters. They move like real people, and they move through a world that feels breathtakingly tactile and tangible.
Borrowing liberally from Moby-Dick and The Mysterious Island with some How to Train Your Dragon and Pirates of the Caribbean thrown in, the story follows Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator), a young orphan who stows away on the Inevitable and winds up stranded with Jacob on an island, where they find themselves face-to-face with the Red Bluster, the most fearsome and elusive of the era’s monsters (and Captain Crow’s personal, er, white whale). Of course, Red (as Maisie soon nicknames the giant critter) doesn’t turn out to be a monster at all but just a misunderstood behemoth who has been fighting humans because humans have been fighting it.
Now, Red is stylized and unreal. This is a family film, after all, and while the other monsters in the film are armored, be-clawed, tentacular nightmares, the adorable Red looks more like a giant crimson seal, albeit with a gaping mouth lined with rounded teeth. One look at it and you know it cannot be the murderous demon of these hunters’ imaginations. The tale of the beast and the humans coming to accept one another is certainly nothing new, but the film finds touching ways to develop this idea. At one point, Maisie walks on Red’s back and sees the many harpoons sticking out of the creature. It’s a haunting image that director Chris Williams knows how to milk for maximum emotional impact.
Williams is a Disney veteran (he co-directed Big Hero 6 and Moana), but he directs The Sea Beast with the verve of a live-action master. His camera (or, well, his “camera”) races among the bustling sailors of the Inevitable à la Das Boot. He expertly builds both suspense and irony through background action as grand swells of distant waves announce the arrival of monsters, with the creatures themselves often seen in clever, brief glimpses à la Jaws. And when we do witness the beasts in full, there’s often grandeur and majesty to them; when Red rises out of the sea, millions of individual water droplets stream off it à la the more recent reiterations of Godzilla. (It’s somewhat unfortunate that the film is primarily a streaming release; it could have been awesome in Imax.) There’s certainly something familiar about The Sea Beast, but it’s a welcome familiarity. This feels like the kind of rip-roaring, old-fashioned live-action seafaring adventure Hollywood often promises but rarely delivers.
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