Review: ‘The Sea Beast’ is a high-seas animated adventure with surprising depth

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'The Sea Beast'

Live-action audiences have set sail in blockbusters like “Pirates of the Caribbean” (2003), but there’s never been a high-seas animated adventure with this much social depth.

“The Sea Beast” premieres on Netflix this Friday for families to embark on a voyage that will dazzle the kids and teach parents a thing or two about lauding heroes of the past.

Set in a time resembling Medieval Europe, the film follows a young orphan named Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator), who stows away on the ship of the famous sea-monster hunter Captain Crow (Jared Harris). She soon finds a father figure in first mate Jacob Holland (Karl Urban) as they sail into uncharted waters to pursue the legendary red Sea Beast.

While Jacob looks a lot like Prince Eric from “The Little Mermaid” (1989) with his white shirt, red sash and blue pants, the rest of the cast is refreshingly diverse from Dan Stevens (“Beauty and the Beast”) to Marianne Jean-Baptiste (“Secrets & Lies”), drawn with racial ambiguity and gender fluidity to reflect the real world rather than whitewashed stereotypes.

Directed by Chris Williams, who storyboarded for “Frozen” (2013), won an Oscar for “Big Hero 6” (2014) and should have won for “Moana” (2016), the computer animation is visually striking right from the opening shipwreck with dynamic flames on realistic waves. The characters are rendered with round strokes compared to the sharp lines of anime.

Sure, hardened cynics could argue that the premise of “The Sea Beast” borrows heavily from “How to Train Your Dragon” (2010) with another brave youngster teaching Medieval adults not to fear the unknown, this time replacing Toothless with a sea monster named Red and an adorable sidekick named Blue that acts a lot like “Lilo & Stitch” (2002).

However, you’ll mostly forget you’re watching a cartoon as Williams crafts a high-seas adventure that feels ripped from the pages of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” Melville’s “Moby Dick” or Benchley’s “Jaws” with seafaring, swashbuckling action echoing Clark Gable in “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935) or Errol Flynn in “The Sea Hawk” (1940).

The spell is only broken twice. Early on, Captain Crow is dragged underwater by a sea monster, but the next scene he’s back on the ship without explaining his apparent rescue. Later, Maisie and Jacob ride inside the Sea Beast’s nostril, but no water rushes in. Even if the creature waits to breath above water, some residual water would splash inside, no?

No matter, these are minor nits to pick compared to the brilliant character work by Williams and co-writer Nell Benjamin, who joined her husband Laurence O’Keefe to adapt “Legally Blonde” for Broadway in 2011, then adapted “Mean Girls” for the stage in 2018. From Elle Woods to Cady Heron, Benjamin knows coming-of-age pathos, making Maisie a bold hero.

Beneath the action is a deceptively deep social commentary painting the king and queen as tyrants stoking a fear of sea monsters to control the peasants. It’s Maisie who first realizes that her monster-hunting ancestors might not have been the heroes she thought, questioning what she learned in history books: “They can be heroes and still be wrong.”

The idea is that key historical figures (Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee) were deeply flawed. There’s no shame in admitting it, Maisie says, as we’re all just trying to grow. Perhaps the next generation won’t fear cable-news buzzwords like “Critical Race Theory” because “The Sea Beast” effectively teaches how to fairly reassess history.

It’s all done with a nuance that will win your heart regardless of politics, keeping its core themes at the center of the story with beautiful animation and lovable characters who lift our spirits as the screen cuts to black for a closing line, “I’m going to have a great life.”

4.5 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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