With its subscription revenue waning, streaming service Netflix recently cut scores of jobs within its animation department. That spelled curtains for a number of kid-oriented works, including Meghan’s in-development series Pearl which was to feature a young girl learning life lessons from inspiring female historical figures. But luckily for fans of girl-positive cartooning, this fantasy epic about Maisie Brumble, a young British girl of color (voiced by Zaris-Angel Hator), who stows away on a ship to find adventure hunting sea beasts, must have been too far along the production line to get the ax. Sporting the kind of lavish detail and splashy effects (water shots are notoriously expensive) that drains the budget in animation, this visually sumptuous work is impressive enough to raise hopes that Netflix will not give up entirely on cartoons.
Directed by Chris Williams, who helmed the delightful Disney feature Big Hero 6, and co-written by Williams and Nell Benjamin, The Sea Beast gets the balance just right between rolling action scenes, the inevitable didactic anti-hunting message about respecting other species’ right to exist and family-friendly humor. There’s a great line where one hunter complains that the history books have him and his colleagues saying “yar” far more than they actually do in real life.
Hator’s Maisie, whose parents were apparently killed at sea in a monster attack, runs away from an orphanage to Captain Crow (whispering Jared Harris) and the pleasingly diverse crew of the Inevitable. Crow, his first mate Jacob (Karl Urban) and the rest are on a quest to kill the Red Bluster, a giant creature that design-wise is a cross between Moby-Dick, Toothless in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise and, in color-terms at least, Clifford the Big Red Dog. But when Jacob and Maisie get lost at sea, Maisie ends up becoming friends with the Red Bluster, which complicates everything.
Unusually for this sort of animation, the human characters are better drawn and animated than the monsters, who are oddly bland despite their toddler-impressing mass. The lighting, mimicking the tonalities of candlelight, full sunshine and underwater murk is especially good and shows off the delicacy of the costumes and sets, especially in the scenes set on land in a capital city that visually is a mashup of Versailles, an imaginary Canaletto seaport and Disney’s It’s a Small World ride.