In a genre where “family friendly” is usually a functional synonym of “for kids,” The Sea Beast is something of a rarity in modern feature animation. Despite superficial elements—like the film’s treatment of alcohol—that indicate a more childlike treatment of its subject matter, the film handles its more mature themes in a way that invites introspection from both younger and older viewers. Meanwhile, it helps that that the film as a whole is an intricately entertaining high-seas adventure, packed with memorable characters and some of the best animated action in years.
Set in a fantastical world where sea monsters prowl off the coast of a nearby human kingdom, The Sea Beast follows the exploits of a ship of bounty-seeking sailors who kill monsters to harvest their horns. Serving under the vengeance-obsessed Captain Crow (Jared Harris), senior crewman and adopted son Jacob Holland (Karl Urban) assists in the perpetual hunt of the most dangerous monster in all the sea: The Red Bluster. However, the local monarchy is prepared to halt the practice of monster hunting to bring it under the provenance of their navy, inciting a contest where the first ship to capture The Red Bluster will be allowed to continue the practice. But when star-struck orphan Maisie Brumble (Zaris-Angel Hator) sneaks aboard Captain Crow’s ship in hopes of taking a place among the crew, both Maisie and Jacob come to realize that the monsters might not be exactly what they’ve spent their whole lives being led to believe.
Directed by Big Hero 6’s Chris Williams, with a screenplay co-written by Williams and Nell Benjamin, the film is a gorgeous feat of animation, particularly in scenes of swashbuckling action. The choppy waves of the sea are gorgeously rendered, as Williams’ camera swings around with graceful urgency during nautical battles. The sheer physical inventiveness of the action set pieces delivers the kind of absorbing spectacle that causes one to inch toward the edge of their seat. In short, when The Sea Beast is in full-on action mode, it’s a blast, and an impressive accomplishment when you consider how the animation team worked in COVID-mandated isolation for much of the film’s three-year production schedule.
Less consistent are the film’s character designs, which vary noticeably in terms of stylization. The crew of Captain Crow’s Inevitable fares the best, with angular and exaggerated facial features that make even nameless background characters interesting to look at, as if each of them has a story to tell. Contrasted with land-bound extras, especially children and Maisie herself, there’s a smoothed-over quality to their features that feels reminiscent of modern Disney. Neither artistic choice is inherently flawed in itself; the issue comes from the juxtaposition, which may have been intended to draw distinction between the worldly, rough-and-tumble hunter lifestyle and the isolated domesticity of the kingdom, but it ultimately makes the two brands of character model feel as if they should exist in different films.
This issue even extends to the monster designs, which are almost uniformly excellent—except for one major caveat. Based on creatures drawn on real-life nautical maps to warn sailors away from unexplored territories, these finned, tentacular, eldritch kaiju are a visual marvel, particularly when in motion or engaged in battle. Best of the bunch is a little guy dubbed Blue, who appears to have been designed in a lab for extreme cuteness and easily makes an effective mascot for the film. Oddly enough, the weak point in the monster designs is The Red Bluster itself, feeling like a half-baked nautical reinterpretation of How To Train Your Dragon’s Toothless, again excessively “smoothed over” and mostly lacking in the distinct visual flourish prevalent in its fellow monstrosities.
That said, strange stylistic choices or superbly gratifying action mean little without the context of a good story, and narrative is where The Sea Beast shines brightest. A repeated maxim of the hunters is that “dying a great death is the consequence of living a great life,” setting the stage for a world where fighting off enemies is seen as the ideal adventure. However, this creates an underlying tension that, again, harkens back to How To Train Your Dragon, but with underlying complexities that speak to the propagandizing power of the wealthy, and the difference between acting heroically and actually doing the right thing.
These compelling themes are communicated through astounding character work brought to life by a talented voice cast, whether it’s Hator expressing Maisie’s disillusionment with her romanticized adoration of the life at sea, or Urban’s Jacob wrestling with the possibility that his life has been primed for a less-than-noble purpose. The standout is Jared Harris’ turn as Captain Crow, a man in constant struggle between his Ahab-like convictions and his responsibilities to his hunting crew and the world-at-large. Even a minor character like Crow’s first mate (voiced by Marianne Jean-Baptiste) acts as a powerful communicator of complex moral dilemmas with only a few lines of dialogue.
Overall, the narrative, performative, and visual splendor of The Sea Beast are enough to vastly outweigh minor issues in presentational consistency. This is a richly realized nautical world, with the animation team expressing an obvious love for the adventure stories that inspired it and a passion for telling a story as hopeful as it is exciting. Whether you’re a fan of animation, a parent in search of a story that won’t condescend to your kids, or just a film lover looking for your latest fix, this is an excellent way to set sail for adventure.