In a society in which Minions: The Rise of Gru has taken over the youngest minds while simultaneously managing to somehow make Twitter a worse place, the divide of quality in kids’ movies becomes all too clear. With the decline of Pixar and the relatively stagnant Dreamworks Studio, Laika Studios seems to be the only consistent producer of thought-provoking, morally edifying, and numbingly entertaining movies—the trifecta that all great kids’ movies manage. (I wonder how successful an amoral children’s movie could be?) From time to time, exceptions are made to this rule and a great “family-friendly” animated movie will originate from a major corporate studio or as a streaming original, like Netflix’s Klaus.
Directed by the Disney veteran Chris Williams, The Sea Beast, Netflix’s return to animation, goes for the trifecta… and successfully hits the dart board, but it’s no bullseye. Two of the three come close to the inner circle, while the third aims for the bullseye but fails to pierce the cork and aborts to the sticky floor. That dart is the pedagogical one.
In a plot that’s eager and loud in its reminiscence of Moby Dick and How to Train Your Dragon, the society of the Three Bridges is stuck in perpetual war with the beasts of the sea—and the freelance Hunters of the sea are the martyrs upon which the myth of the empire is built. The flagship “The Inevitable” and its Captain Crow (Jared Harris) are soon to be replaced by a governmental operation, the gold-studded and canon-riddled “Imperator.” If the latter brings the great Red Bluster to the monarchs before the former, The Inevitable will lose its governmental support. Crow and his crew must face off and defeat the big-bad government in this adventure task. But much like in the superior How to Train Your Dragon, the war is a farce that perpetuates the ruling class status quo: the beast aren’t really beasts, and humans and sea-monsters can co-exist just like humans and any other aquatic lifeform.
An orphan girl obsessed with the heroes of The Inevitable, Maisie Brumble (Zaris-Angel Hator), stows away, forcing the hand of Captain Crow and first-mate Jacob (Karl Urban), who develops a soft spot for the kid. Maisie’s obsession stems from a history book that reads something like Foxe’s Book of Martyrs but for Kraken killers and giant squid slayers. After being separated from the crew, the girl and Jacob come to realize the gentle nature of the Red Bluster—but Maisie can’t seem to shake the fact that the book lied to her. The grand speech she gives to the monarchs and citizens of Three Bridges at the film’s climax is fixated on the propaganda developed by the empire to sustain and perpetuate the myth of the forever war.
And here is where the moral pedagogy wanes. It’s not that the theme is somehow immoral, amoral, or of a deviant and/or inconsistent moral philosophy (at least, I didn’t see anything immediately contestable). It’s just… not really a relatable, or more importantly, prudential theme for children. “Question the history books” on itself, divorced from contemporary American politics, would be an indispensable moral lesson. But, unfortunately, a movie can’t be divorced from politics so easily. “Which books” is a question the movie doesn’t really want to ask. The ones the United Daughters of the Confederacy practically dictated? Or the ones that terrify the GOP because they don’t hide the horrors of slavery? Doesn’t matter; doubt the metanarratives of both, The Sea Beast seems to say. Or doubt whichever you were already inclined to doubt—an even more cowardly lesson. For most movies, this wouldn’t be a huge deal, but given that children are less apt to think reflexively about movies, I think social-political issues contain more weight in artwork aimed at kids.
On several occasions, the screenwriters find it urgent to communicate that the martyrs who came before were still heroes in the full sense of the word. Maisie’s parents, who both died aboard a famously drowned ship, were “heroes,” Jacob notes, even if they died defending a lie. This, I would argue, is just wrong. Confederate soldiers who died defending the right to own other human beings were not heroes. The American soldiers who died (and continue to die) defending American neo-colonial interests in the Global South and the Middle East, I’d maintain, aren’t heroes. Heroes are models of action, thought, and behavior. And hegemony-defending and war-perpetuating soldiers, misguided or not, aren’t heroes in my book.
Moral dart throwing aside, other than the rubber-looking animation style on the humans that have become the norm for most mainstream American animation studios, this is a gorgeous movie. Virtually all the shots meant to wow us with the Red Bluster’s scale do a marvelous job, including a creepy deep-sea shot in the first act.
Available in HDR on Netflix, the bright (often primary) colors pop and the dark ones spook. Not unrelated, the textured and multi-colored water might be the best-animated H2O since Kubo and the Two Strings. And luckily– spoiler alert– a good percentage of the runtime happens on the water! Likewise, the Red Bluster fights a giant crab in front of an idyllic and scenic island that teems with odd lifeforms—and any movie with a giant purple crab can’t possibly be that bad.
On the other hand, Mark Mancina’s score is wildly derivative of both the swashbuckling-ness of Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer’s Pirates of the Caribbean scores and the triumphal grandeur of John Powell’s How to Train Your Dragon. I’d be shocked if both weren’t temp-tracks at some point. It’s not a bad score, especially in the second half when it cracks open the themes a bit. It’s unfortunate, though, that they seem afraid to blast it. Powell’s bold score worked so well in part because the filmmakers allowed it to absorb so much attention, playing it uninterrupted and at high volumes for significant sequences and scenes. Williams appears to have less trust in Mancina, never allowing his score to overwash the scene with emotion in the same way as either of the two scores it’s derived from.
Lest you worry, I’m still confident The Sea Beast would be a better use of your time than the Minions ever could be. So that counts for something.
The Sea Beast
dir. Chris Williams
The Sea Beast is available exclusively on Netflix.