There’s such a simple grace to the animation in Long Way North that deserved a simpler, more graceful story. This vibrant little animation, coming out of France and Denmark, bears a seemingly straightforward story but every potential for expressive beauty is slightly diluted in unfeeling anecdotal details. Tsarist Russian politics, nautical terms and geographical mapping datum are perfectly acceptable ingredients in adventure romps, and Long Way North writhes them into the story with a self-proud gusto that could be almost admirable if it weren’t so glaringly obvious how little they actually mean to the story. Which, by the way, centers on a young Russian aristocrat, Sasha, who sets out to find her missing grandfather and clear her family’s name. That description alone, unfortunately, does the story only a little justice.
Long Way North works under the guise of having simple but lucid emotional plot motivators, but in truth it misguidedly sets these simple but effective tools aside to imbue strange, stodgy moral ambiguity and ponderous background notes. A third of the movie seems to be dramatically feasible, the other two-thirds however amounts only to plot-oriented info dump.
Early in the movie Sasha is rummaging through an old library, named after her grandfather (a famous explorer). By chance she comes across a document containing the coordinates of his last expedition (revealing a passage to the North Pole) locating a different route on his journey than originally thought. There’s a keen sense of urgency and close-to-home incentive that drives the scene. It carries enough personal involvement to anchor the characters and their emotions, and enough external motivation to capitulate the story into something grander. But the movie doesn’t seem to know when to let up. Long Way North spoils every simple plot detail by inflating its story.
Somewhere along the way, Long Way North introduces a vapid, go nowhere, ‘arranged marriage’ subplot— filtered through safe, child-proof contemporary lenses. Later the film strives for an even more pedagogic and moralizing “earn-your-stripes” arch where, before Sasha gets to actually prove herself in the point of the story that actually matters, she needs to prove herself by cooking and cleaning—in what feels like a stupid amount of time—inside a roughneck, blue collar bed and breakfast. In terse and cutesy montage, the sequence feels like a Disney song number (minus the song). The point to upend her pampered upbringing seems to be recapitulated in pale variations throughout the film—Sasha constantly has to prove herself to the point where she becomes the only character that doesn’t need to prove anything.
The problems I have with this film seem to conflict with what I primarily actually really loved about Long Way North, that being the vivid, expressive and simplicity of its animation. The movie is so humbly beautiful and guilelessly naturalistic, in fact, that I have a hard time describing Long Way North as an outright bad film—there’s far too many great moments for me to dismiss it that way.
There’s a revelatory ‘moment of truth’ in this movie I could almost call brilliant—involving delicately timed snowfall, an intimately framed portrait and a compass (pointing North). Its emotions stir in mystery, its moody calm is atmospheric and its call to adventure is stimulating. But it’s a hollow moment. The first mistake the movie makes is assuming we understand and immediately empathize with what it’s Russian heiress, Sasha, is going through. She’s a sprightly and likable protagonist with plenty of agency and some moments in the film do a well-enough job expressing a deep sense of sadness in her, but little—if anything—is shown to indicate the weight behind the heartache driving her motivation.
Long Way North feels falsely self-assured, hinging its biggest and most memorable moments on the haunting images it creates. But falls limp when actual, deeply felt emotions are required to gravitate them to a more relatable, unseen altitude.
Maybe the best piece of praise I can give Long Way North is that it makes me long for the old-fashioned adventures of classic Disney and Hayao Miyazaki. The no-frills, plainspoken bravado of these films seem to be a long-dead tradition in cinematic storytelling. Long Way North, if only meagerly, reignites that flare of nostalgia. Retroactively, these same feelings also make the film slightly disappointing, bringing to light bigger problems I had with the film. The animation is first-rate and dark-realized, the story is less-so.