Over the years, I’ve noticed that animated films with a bit more substance to them have become harder and harder to come by. Too often, films for kids end up feeling like just that, films for kids, designed to keep their supposed little attention spans engaged on their movie with tons of humour and loud noises. The Sea Beast, then, is a refreshing change of tempo and despite being a funny adventure, it also takes itself seriously and prioritizes telling a compelling narrative first and foremost. It doesn’t always achieve this goal, but the adventure is certainly a fun one to embark on and one worth taking.
The Sea Beast is written, produced and directed by Chris Williams, who was the co-director on Moana and Big Hero 6. He brings us into a world heavily inspired by the 17th and 18th centuries with a lot of pirate motifs. But instead of piracy, we’re following the exploits of the hunter ship The Inevitable and its crew, led by Captain Crow (Jared Harris, superb as always). He sails the high seas under the commission of the King and Queen in search of fearsome sea monsters who attack merchant ships and kills them for bounties. His adopted son, Jacob Holland (Karl Urban) is working his way up to Crow’s legendary status himself and will one day become the captain of The Inevitable. Urban is clearly having fun here, channeling some of that energy he had in Thor: Ragnarok.
At the same time, young orphan Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator) escapes from her orphanage and seeks to find work upon The Inevitable. Her parents, hunters themselves, died aboard The Monarch and Maisie has spent her youth idolizing their memory and profession. To her, becoming a hunter and dying valiantly in service of the Crown is nothing short of glorious. Very Spartan of her. She eventually stows away on The Inevitable and after an encounter with a creature, finds herself stranded in the ocean with Jacob. The two then find themselves on a journey of discovery and wonder as they begin to learn about their profession and their history.
Right off the bat, let’s get it out of the way. The animation in this movie is so good. Water has come a long way in animation and CGI to the point where it’s photorealistic now and The Sea Beast is no exception. Not only that but the art style is largely impressive overall, from the details in the clothing, ship design and the environment. The capital city in particular is a treat to behold. The score was also pretty great and featured everything from shanties to sweeping set pieces.
What wasn’t as impressive for me was the design of the titular Sea Beast, dubbed “Red” by Maisie. It kind of felt like something that a child would have drawn in their agenda during class. Compared to the rest of the design and detail, Red seemed way more uninspired, as if less detail went into her despite her being the titular attraction that drives the narrative. The other creatures in the film, from the first sea creature we see and the giant grab monster around the midway point of the movie have much cooler designs, but Red felt very simple and even uninspired in relation to the rest of the film’s design. which is a shame as so much of the emotional weight of the narrative hinges on Red. Toothless, from How To Train Your Dragon, this is not.
The Sea Beast as a whole is also a little uninspired narratively speaking, in that it feels a bit like other films that have come before it. Whether it be Pirates of the Caribbean or How To Train Your Dragon, there was a sense of deja vu while watching the film. That said, despite a sense of familiarity, the film is still quite good and offers up more complex themes of colonialism, history, legacy and honour. I like that The Sea Beast, despite being an animated film for kids, took itself quite seriously and didn’t “go for the gag”. It wanted to tell a more layered story and the film succeeded in doing that. It was nice to watch an animated movie for kids that didn’t feel like it was holding the audience’s hand or trying to keep its attention by throwing everything on the screen at once. It took its time and has a decent amount of subtext and I liked that.
In the end, The Sea Beast is a feast for the eyes in everything but the titular beast. It’s familiar but doesn’t stop it from being fun and engaging. Kids will like it and adults should too. I’d recommend a voyage on this ship.