Early in my tenure at this paper, a coworker told me, "Reader readers are seldom breeders." Like the opening words of a nursery rhyme, this dictum has stuck with me over the years, and it partly explains why we devote so little of our resources to reviewing children's films. With adult-minded movies ever harder to find in theaters, surely movies for kids can take care of themselves, driven as they are by epic marketing campaigns and the awesome peer pressure of schoolyard buzz. But then along comes an obscure gem such as the French-Danish animation Long Way North, opening Friday for a two-week holiday run, in both dubbed and subtitled versions, at Gene Siskel Film Center. The tale of a Russian girl setting sail for the arctic circle in the 1880s, it's beautifully rendered in simple 2-D animation that focuses attention on the characters, and these are so credibly conceived that the film, like all good family fare, has the power to unite children and adults through the sheer force of its storytelling.
A 3-D release is almost obligatory for Hollywood children's movies nowadays, yet Rémi Chayé, directing his first feature after assisting on The Secret of Kells (2009) and The Painting (2011), creates a beautiful, posterlike 2-D aesthetic with bold blocks of color and no outlining of forms. The only black lines of any significance are those used to sketch the characters' facial features—an angled line for a nose, a slightly crooked line for a mouth. Outlining and shading serve to delineate objects in space, but the look here is stubbornly, almost provocatively flat. In the opening- credit sequence, 15-year-old Sacha slides a little toy boat northward along a map of northern Russia that shows where her seafaring grandfather, a great hero in their native Saint Petersburg, disappeared two years earlier while attempting to reach the North Pole; her hand, rendered in gray and flesh tone, almost seems to flatten out into the map itself.
Paradoxically, Chayé creates a greater sense of emotional depth with two dimensions than most animators can with three. His characterization is exceptionally precise, especially in the quick eye movements that instantly communicate a person's thoughts. When Sacha discovers among her grandfather's papers a navigation sheet suggesting he may have taken an alternate route through the Barents Sea, her pupils dart back and forth almost imperceptibly, taking in the information. At her coming-out ball she tries to persuade Prince Tomsky, the czar's dashing new science adviser, to revive the search for her grandfather's lost ship, the Davai; instead the nobleman uses the incident to embarrass her father, who is shown in profile shooting a reproachful glance at his daughter. She returns his gaze, the line of her brow tweaked slightly with concern, before lowering her eyes in shame. Character is best expressed through movement, and what movement could be more eloquent than one revealing a desire to look, or look away?
Rebuked by her parents, Sacha decides to mount her own rescue expedition and runs away from home, making her way to a Siberian port town where she does some growing up as an overworked barmaid and eventually persuades a local sea captain and his crew to mount a search operation for the Davai. On paper her journey may sound like the sort of girl-power adventure Disney has been peddling of late (Moana, Frozen), and Chayé shows Sacha's body movements growing more sassy and assured as she learns how to handle herself, first in the tavern and later onboard the men's sailing ship, the Norge. But the psychology at work is too complex to be boiled down to a simple coming-of-age narrative: Sacha is not only running away from home but running toward it, in the form of her beloved grandfather, and the exuberance she feels about her newfound freedom and experience is tempered by the possibility that she might wind up bringing home his body.
The poster-style artwork wields even greater power when Sacha arrives in the blinding whiteness of the arctic north and her indomitable will collides with the savagery of nature. The Norge heads north into an ice field, the ocean waters peacock blue, cerulean marking the jagged edges of the ice sheets, and the pale blue sky offset at the water's horizon by a wisp of cloud. Later, after the Norge has been lost and the explorers have no option but to push forward in search of the Davai, blues and grays conjure up the giant ice formations in all their serrated beauty. At the climax, Sacha and the cabin boy, Katch, are menaced by a polar bear towering above them on its hind legs; rendered in white with gray shadow, against a pale yellow background, the image feels as flat as wallpaper, but the minimal black dots marking the bear's eyes are terrifying.
Sacha not only leads the captain and crew of the Norge into a life-or-death situation, she may lead young viewers of Long Way North into some unfamiliar and decidedly unpleasant emotional terrain. "We're all going to die here," exclaims one of the sailors, blaming Sacha for their predicament. When the crew members are carefully rationing their soup, the same sailor grabs for Sacha's bowl, and in the ensuing scuffle three bowls are upended in the snow; desperate for food, the men grovel like pigs, trying to suck up the soup. Fear, selfishness, and despair may not be considered suitable realities for a children's movie, but that's the risk you take when you follow genuine characters out into the world. No one needs three dimensions to create an illusion of depth. v