There’s something to be said about animated films revisiting classical themes. It gives writers and filmmakers the opportunities to explore, subvert, or maybe add a little bit of nuance to story elements we’ve grown familiar with. That’s what makes Netflix’s The Sea Beast stand out. What seems like just another movie about challenging violent traditions is instead a memorable and fun pirate journey with interesting animation and a heartwarming cast.
Released on July 1st via Netflix, The Sea Beast takes us to a fantastical world where the seas are inhabited by formidable beasts. These beasts are slain by hunters, buccaneers hailed as heroes for keeping the waters safe. The story follows the unlikely friendship of legendary hunter Jacob Holland (Karl Urban) and Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator), an orphan who stowed away on The Inevitable, a famous hunting ship led by Captain Crow (Jared Harris) where Holland happens to work.
The ship sets out to hunt a beast known as the Red Bluster to prove to the King and Queen of Three Bridges — the naval empire where the story takes place — that they don’t need to be replaced by a more formal military. But as the quest progresses and their friendship grows, Holland and Maisie start to question the established relationship between hunters and beasts.
A familiar director at the helm.
This is the first solo feature by director Chris Williams, who previously co-directed Disney’s Big Hero 6 and Moana. His experience working on these beloved animated movies is evident in the cohesive, artistic vision of The Sea Beast. The animation style makes a compelling usage of duality, contrasting highly detailed objects and environments, like the textures of the ships and the lighting in the local pubs, against a cartoonish character design.
This contrast is standard fare in a lot of modern animated movies, but in The Sea Beast, this opens the door to incredibly creative beast designs, a true highlight of the movie. There are beasts of familiar shapes like giant crabs and multi-tentacled Kraken, but also even more imaginative and innovative creatures such as bright red reptiles with a soft-rubbery texture.
The film also does a spectacular job conveying the scale of the monsters. The beasts are often massive, and the film makes it clear with wide shots communicating how minuscule humans are in comparison to the creatures. Close-ups expose this striking perspective when humans come face-to-face with these awe-inspiring, Kaiju-esque titans.
This scale is also matched by endearing performances. Urban gives Holland the perfect balance between grumpy sailor and caring father figure. Hator infuses Maisie with energy and wit. All of their interactions are full of humanity and are the emotional engine of the movie. The supporting cast also includes standouts like Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s Sarah Sharpe, and seeing the diverse crew was refreshing. It’s not often that pirate stories showcase the diversity that real-life pirates had.
The Sea Beast has a seaworthy story.
Like many other children’s movies, the plot structure is quite predictable. But the true treasure of this pirate adventure isn’t the story destination, but rather how it weaves multiple, complex thematic elements. Like how history can be altered to serve political purposes, and heroism isn’t necessarily linked to moral righteousness. There’s even messaging about war profiteering. These are complicated topics for a family film, and The Sea Beast introduces them in an appropriate and engaging manner without ever talking down to its young audience.
The film also showcases the slow and often painful process of changing a long-held belief. Characters in children’s movies tend to evolve too quickly to appreciate the process of their growth, but in The Sea Beast, we get to appreciate incremental progress, which is more common in the real world. These layered additions to the standard monster-pirate adventure formula ultimately make the film stand out in a crowded streaming space.
On the negative side, the plot could have used further streamlining, as its 115-minute runtime is quite onerous. Some story diversions like the antagonist’s visit to a strange witch did not end up having a significant pay-off, and some of the action sequences, while very fun, might have been a bit stretched. Despite these issues, however, The Sea Beast is an enjoyable summer family movie that is unafraid of being mature without losing its charm.
The Sea Beast is now available to stream on Netflix. Watch the trailer here.