One of the better purely hand-drawn animated films of 2016, Long Way North tells the tale of Sasha (voiced by Christa Théret), a Russian teenager circa 1882, whose grandfather was a renowned explorer determined to be the first to plant the Russian flag on the North Pole. She was only a child when he left, but her connection to him and his journey never wavered. Although others have sought the wreckage of the missing ship without success, Sasha becomes convinced that notes in her grandfather’s office reveal his true path to the top of the world, and she runs away from home after her diplomat father refuses to approach the powers that be about a new search party.
Sasha’s own journey is a series of disappointments, heartbreaks and life lessons before she finally gets on an icebreaking ship, with a crew very interested in the reward being offered for finding the missing vessel. Although the story is fiction, it’s clear that first-time French director Rémi Chayé (who worked in the animation departments on works such as The Painting and The Secret of Kells) is drawing influences from the real-life polar expedition of Sir Ernest Shackleton. The animation style is simple but quite expressive, especially when the action moves to the Arctic Circle and the crew must abandon ship and search for the missing vessel on foot in brutally icy winds.
Long Way North is also a story about a child who grew up as part of the Russian aristocracy learning to rough it on her own and prove herself to lifelong sailors, as well as protect her family’s honor. Suitable for children, the movie is certainly different in terms of its subject matter from your standard-issue animated work. Sasha is no princess, and there are no princes on her horizon to save her mission or her life. Although it’s family friendly, Long Way North is also about a hard-fought journey complete with struggle and suffering, and while I don’t want to say how it ends, the payoff makes most of the strife worth going through. I’d certainly recommend this animated work over the other one opening this holiday season, so take a lesson from Sasha and be bold in your movie selection.
The film opens today for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Screenings alternate between French with English subtitles and English-language dubbing. Go to the Film Center’s schedule to see which screenings are presented in which format.