The Sea Beast
- Director: Chris Williams
- Writers: Chris Williams, Nell Benjamin
- Starring: Karl Urban, Zaris-Angel Hator, Jared Harris, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Dan Stevens, Kathy Burke
Netflix’s quest to win the Academy Award for Best Picture has been a well-documented pursuit in recent years. With The Sea Beast, they perhaps have their best chance at winning the Best Animated Feature. The streamer’s newest animated film arrives on Friday and, while it’s likely to be swallowed up by their bigger, more palatable films, it deserves a spot at the table as one of the best animated films of the year.
The film comes from director Chris Williams, who cut his teeth for years in various roles at Disney, including directing the under-rated Big Hero 6. While the screenplay – which Williams co-wrote with Nell Benjamin – may not break new ground, Williams uses a distinct visual flare from the very first moments that elevates the material. Set in the age of pirates and oceanic exploration, The Sea Beast successfully blends adrenaline-pumping action and sweet character work with an unexpectedly relevant message that’s underplayed nicely.
The hero is Jacob Holland (voiced by Karl Urban), the first mate on the Inevitable, the greatest monster-hunting vessel in the unspecified-but-clearly-British-influenced kingdom. He has an amicable relationship with Captain Crow (Jared Harris), who has a long-standing grudge against sea monsters. Crucially, Crow isn’t exactly depicted as the film’s villain, gruff and focused as he is on killing the ocean’s biggest, most elusive monster – the Red Bluster.
The Inevitable and its crew crosses paths with Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator), a zealous orphan who idolizes Jacob, Crow, and their monster hunting exploits. It’s not long into the battle with Red – as Maisie comes to call her – that Jacob and Maisie are literally swallowed whole and become marooned on a deserted island, where they come to learn that their history with sea monsters may not be as accurate as it was written. This development of a mutual friendship between the humans and monster isn’t exactly revelatory, especially with the unnecessary addition of an adorable baby sea monster sidekick, but Williams depicts it all with heart, and a warmth between the characters that keeps it all afloat.
But the real star of The Sea Beast is its impressive visuals. It’s not just that Williams directs the action sequences as a kind of maritime Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s not just that art director Woonyoung Jung fills the film with a rich color palette, utilizing the sunny ocean and the monster’s vibrant hues. It’s not just that Williams never loses the sense of scale, often juxtaposing the monsters against their puny human counterparts. It’s that the film utilizes all of these elements to create an experience that should be seen on the biggest screen possible – something that isn’t often said with most streaming movies.
I had initially balked at the film’s runtime of nearly two hours, and I fear that kids will lose interest by the end of it as well, but found the film to hum along nicely for the most part. The middle act, particularly the bits where Jacob and Maisie are stranded on the island, sags a bit, but the film has enough exciting action set pieces to be entertaining enough. Williams and Benjamin also manage to sneak in a poignant bit of social commentary that speaks to today’s culture debates about re-examining history. Through her budding relationship with Red, Maisie begins to discover that the legends of ferocious beasts that destroy villages aren’t as reliable as she’s been led to believe. Thankfully Williams does not hammer this message home, instead rooting it in Maisie’s growth as she explores the world.
Netflix will continue to churn out movies and TV shows for adults and kids as the year goes on – one has probably just dropped in the time you’ve been reading this. While it is a little disappointing that The Sea Beast may not utilize any new animation tricks like some of its other recent breakout films like Klaus or I Lost My Body, it remains a stunning piece of work that could go toe-to-toe with Disney and Pixar’s films this year.
The Sea Beast will be available on Netflix on July 8.
- I’m not sure what animated fare Netflix has left on its chopping block this year, but hopefully they don’t forget about it when awards season comes around. Disney and Pixar will have a stacked deck of films to choose from this year, but as long as Netflix campaigns for the film, it can have a chance at a nomination for Animated Feature.