LONG WAY NORTH uses deceptively simple animation to tell an epic adventure. At its center is Sasha (Christa Théret), a spirited and determined 15-year-old set on restoring her family’s honor, and the legacy her of her beloved grandfather, Oloukine (Féodor Atkine) an arctic explorer gone missing on his last expedition.
It would be a monumental undertaking for anyone, much less an adolescent, much less a girl, but Sasha lives in Imperial Russia, and her role in life is to make a brilliant match that will further he father’s career. It’s something she’s willing to do until she discovers that the man her family expects her to charm is also the one who is shutting down the tribute the Czar planned for her grandfather. She makes matters worse by insisting that everyone has been looking for Oloukine in the wrong place, breaking several protocols, even more cultural expectations, and driving the final stake through her father’s aspirations. Refusing to be deterred, Sasha does the bravest and most foolhardy thing within her power: she runs away from home to find her grandfather, traveling across Russia and rising to every challenge that presents itself.
This is no Disney princess with a fairy godmother waiting in the wings, unless you count the no-nonsense innkeeper who takes pity on Sasha after she is cheated out of all her money. It’s no easy ride, with Sasha learning to peel potatoes like a pro in exchange for room and board, but it’s that very lack of kid-glove treatment that toughens her up and increases her confidence for the next leg of her journey to the frozen wastes and the very real possibility that she, too, will go missing.
One has to make some allowances for a story aimed at kids. That Sasha talks her way onto a boat heading north is one, but by making Sasha not just audacious, but also prepared with fact, figures, and a map from her grandfather eases the way. There is, of course, the love-hate relationship with the first-mate, Larson (Antony Hickling), who is also the Captain’s brother and not in his best graces, but the routines of shipboard life, told with a visceral love of sailing saves that from being cloying.
The best part of the story is the arctic expedition, where things go wrong, people turn on one another, and there is a genuine sense that things won’t turn out well. It’s told with subtlety rather than melodrama, and Sasha is allowed to show backbone and grit as well as intelligence. Underscoring it all is a straightforward animation that allows the emotionally resonant voice work to shine, and the vast landscape to be both as beautiful as Oloukine described to Sasha, and as foreboding.
LONG WAY NORTH is an entirely charming tale with enough suspense for kids and their adults, with a heroine capable of inspiring both, no matter the gender. Well-paced, it never talks down to its audience. My only real quibble, there was no penicillin back then. Other than that, it’s a superb piece of fimmaking.