Long Way North (Tout en haute du monde) is a lyrically beautiful, engrossing, old-school adventure tale that sends a cosseted young girl on a journey of personal growth in one of the most unforgiving environments on Earth. Long Way North compares very favorably with Disney’s Moana, with the two films driven by daring lead characters escaping a safe existence to brave an ocean on what nearly everyone tells them is a fool’s errand. This French film by Rémi Chayé is another in a long chain of extraordinarily satisfying animated features released last year, and one that deserves as wide an audience as it can get now that Shout! Factory has brought it to DVD and Blu-ray after its limited theatrical run.
Young Sacha Tchernetsov is a sheltered teenager in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg, whose adventuring grandfather Oloukine vanished while searching for the fabled Northwest Passage. On the day of her debut party, a chance discovery in her grandfather’s office leads Sacha to believe that the rescue parties sent to look for her grandfather were searching in the wrong place. She takes matters into her own hands when none of the adults in her life will listen to her, striking out from her family’s mansion and off on a great nautical journey to the ice fields and glaciers of the North Pole.
Both Moana and Sacha are endearingly bull-headed heroines whose epic journeys give their life skills time to catch up with their chutzpah. Early scenes make it clear that Sacha adores her grandfather and takes after his independent spirit, and if her decision to embark on her great adventure seems impulsive and immature, it is also clearly a deliberate choice for a much more challenging path than she would ever get from the comforts of home. I hesitate to reveal too much more of the plot, since the joys of discovery drive the movie as much as they drive its lead character. Suffice to say that Sacha is given ample opportunity to discover the value of hard work as the stakes grow steadily higher the closer she gets to the Pole, and her quiet never-quit determination soon becomes her defining and most appealing trait.
An extraordinarily focused, disciplined sense of economy characterizes every aspect of Long Way North: its lean running time of 80 minutes, its plot, its use of music, its methods of character development, and its visual design. The movie does not waste a single minute of its running time, and the spare simplicity of its plotting and its pacing ensures we stay thoroughly engrossed for the duration. For American animation fans, Long Way North‘s will seem almost stately in its deliberately slow sense of pacing, even during its more exciting action scenes. Even so, the movie can easily evoke genuine tension and suspense without resorting to the dramatics or broad theatricality of other films. That simplicity also ensures that the movie stays grounded and focused on maintaining its forward momentum. Long Way North is not a movie that emphasizes its side-stories and subplots, even though it does have them, opting instead to present characters with a chain of practical obstacles to be overcome by practical means. There is one exception late in the movie, which quite successfully presents a highly improbable one-in-a-billion coincidence as a moment of mystic importance that evokes a genuine sense of magic. It’s a scene that one could believe was really a bizarre fever dream if not for the physical evidence left behind.
A combination of aesthetic style and extreme budgetary restrictions led to the strikingly simple visual design of the movie, which renders characters and locations in shapes unbounded by the expected black outlines. This design serves the movie extremely well in a surprising number of ways, both practical and artistic. Practically, the simple designs meant less money and time required for animation, meaning the entire film could be animated in France rather than outsourced. The style also allows for seamless blending of CGI elements such as the boats and other vehicles, which don’t need to be textured and ended up being colored with the same tools as the hand-drawn elements. The simple character designs also allow for surprisingly subtle animated acting, since the smallest, quickest gestures and facial tics can still be seen. One can see this especially in Lund, the gruff and taciturn captain of the ship that takes Sacha northwards. He is a character who expresses himself beautifully through stillness, baleful glares, and the smallest eye and mouth movements. It also allows for some wonderful grace notes, like the stubborn strand of hair that keeps getting in Sacha’s face, or the way her condensing breath or the steam from a train retains the qualities of a paintbrush.
Shout! Factory’s combo pack presentation of Long Way North is exemplary. The video quality sparkles on the Blu-ray, as do the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtracks in both French and English. Of the two, I would opt for the French; the English dub is well-translated and well-performed, but ultimately feels less genuine. I view it as most useful for making the movie more accessible to younger audiences who can’t read subtitles fast enough. An identical slate of bonus features are on both the DVD and the Blu-ray. First is the conceptual short that the producers used to pitch the movie and present its visual style, which manages to tell the bulk of the story in about two minutes (which is not a poor reflection on the feature as much as a compliment to the efficiency of the short). A half-hour behind-the-scenes featurette is in subtitled French and covers all aspects of the film’s production. It is quite thorough, but also tends to drift into new topics without much reason or warning (or perhaps my high-school French ear just didn’t pick up on cues that were lost in the English translation). The 40-minute English-language interview with director Rémi Chayé and producer Henri Magalon is better in this regard, covering the movie’s history from start to finish (including how the short fit into Long Way North‘s development). There is surprisingly little overlap between the interview and the featurette, with both combined yielding a fairly comprehensive look at the movie’s production. Finally, still galleries and animatics of key scenes are also included. The combo pack also offers a digital download code.
The fact that Long Way North is so creatively successful on a €6 million (US$6.5 million) budget makes me wonder if the best thing for the American feature animation industry would be to give some teams comparably small budgets and turn them loose with no further restrictions. Long Way North definitely punches well above its weight class, capable of standing toe-to-toe with any of the best recent animated features released by the major American studios with budgets that were orders of magnitude bigger. Long Way North easily makes the short list of top animated features of 2016, if not the past 5-10 years.