When cartographers allowed their senses of imagination and self-preservation to fill the unexplored regions of their maps, they used to warn of creatures like lions, elephants and walruses. Creatures beyond understanding, with teeth and trunks and tusks easy to caricature into danger. But we mostly remember that when you sail to the faded edge of knowledge, there be dragons. The Sea Beast deftly hones this ancient human fear into a sharpened spear tip, striking at ignorance. Its swashbuckling adventure navigates a sea filled with massive critters sure to whet kids’ appetites for piracy, Godzilla films and exciting animation.
The first movie from longtime Disney story staple Chris Williams after leaving the House of Mouse for Netflix, The Sea Beast is, to paraphrase Jared Harris’ Ahab-like Captain Crow, all piss and vinegar. That the film even alludes to the phrase, and drops a few other lightly-salted lines you might expect from some seasoned sea dogs, is indicative of its separation from the sanitized juggernaut. It looks violence in the eye; it isn’t afraid to make its threats real. All rightfully so. Telling a tall tale of hunters—mercenary crews funded by a colonialist crown to take out the kaijus populating the ocean—wouldn’t be right without at least a little edge.
Our way into the world, the young Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator), has experienced its dangerous realities firsthand: Her parents went down with a ship, leaving her as one of dozens of hunter orphans. But that hasn’t stopped her from lionizing her martyred family (something explicitly encouraged by the monarchy) and seeking her own glory. Stowing away on Crow’s ship, the Inevitable, she and the capable Jacob (Karl Urban) find themselves confronting the legendary ambitions they’ve built up in their own heads. But before we get to the more familiar beats of a kid and a grown kid going through separate-yet-conjoined emotional arcs, we go a’hunting.
Williams and co-writer Nell Benjamin immediately drop us into the Inevitable’s quest to take out Crow’s toothy and horned Red Whale, dubbed the Red Bluster, with total confidence that there’s no time like maritime. As our eyes roll and pitch across the impressively realistic waves and our ears try to follow the meticulously detailed helmsmanship, the hunting scenes ensnare us like the catch of the day. We understand the hierarchy of the diverse crew, the honor code among hunters, the tactics needed to take down imposing creatures that look like Toho turned their greatest hits into Pokémon. It’s savvy and respectful writing, put into legible action by Williams’ skilled hand, that trusts in its setting and subject matter to be inherently cool, and in its audience to greedily follow along. By the time the lances are flying, the cannons are firing and the creatures are dying—or are they?—you’re as deeply hooked as any dad watching Master and Commander. More movies should be set on huge ships, and the way The Sea Beast pulls off its most action-packed sequences makes you appreciate the difficulty preventing even animation from tackling it too often.
One of The Sea Beast’s smartest moves is getting us to drink the film’s grog before Maisie and Jacob confront the truth and fantasy of this world. Maisie’s every line sizzles thanks to Hator’s prickly charm, her snappy deliveries always rising to her precocious scallywag’s intelligence. As Jacob (also a hunter orphan, raised on the Inevitable by Crow) reluctantly takes her in, a stammering Urban makes his character’s confusion around repeating his own upbringing float atop a deep indoctrination like an oil spill on a bright blue sea.
These broiling emotions often subtly stay submerged inside the chunky character designs, though these sometimes clash with the softly hyperrealist environmental work, and span everyone from the spitfire Maisie to the sleekly majestic Red Bluster. The odd-couple dynamic between its leads is particularly endearing when The Sea Beast luxuriates in navigating its own world. Maisie and Jacob bicker and bond as they squish and chuck weird little Peep-walruses and corgi-angler-fish, sleep in the pink interiors of giant snail shells, and ogle jellyfish floating through towering underwater kelp. You want to live there with them, learning and growing amidst the magical unknown.
It’s there that the ignorance of our own historical mapmakers is confronted. Agendas are met with insight, assumption met with experience. That’s complex enough already for a rollicking seafaring adventure, but it’s intermingled with the deep intergenerational anxieties that make Disney’s familial tales so consistently moving, getting the best of all worlds for much of the movie. Even when the understated themes disappointingly burst to the fore during the finale, they’re smart enough to provoke thought in its audience without blatantly harpooning the older crowd.
The Sea Beast often pleasantly errs in the other direction. Withholding information, allowing our racing minds to flood the gaps, makes its world all the more engaging. It can make things feel a little loosely held together from time to time, but that’s always a better experience than a children’s movie that clearly thinks those watching it are too dumb to follow along without their hands held. One kind of movie inspires, the other makes a show of the boundaries holding inspiration back. While Williams and team offer plenty of closure, this is the rare modern movie that left me raring to return to its shanties and sea-witches. A delightful new-school deconstruction of old-school Romantic adventure that never compromises on the lushness of setting, color and emotion inherent in the latter, The Sea Beast rises to the front of Netflix’s animated offerings like a high tide.
Director: Chris Williams
Writer: Chris Williams, Nell Benjamin
Starring: Karl Urban, Zaris-Angel Hator, Jared Harris, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Dan Stevens, Kathy Burke
Release Date: June 24, 2022; July 8, 2022 (Netflix)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.