The B-minus beast
How to Train Your Dragon came out 13 years ago, and I’d imagine the target audience for The Sea Beast is about 11 years old. So, sure. I don’t blame Netflix and Chris Williams too much for essentially rebooting that story and changing a few details. And, hey, the movie got a nomination for Best Animated Feature, so I guess they can call it a success.
But just be aware that this movie is really, really like How to Train Your Dragon. You can map most scenes and characters one-to-one between the two movies. The one exception is the ending, where The Sea Beast has as its big bad guy the military-industrial complex instead of a gnarly, giant dragon, but more on that in a bit.
The Sea Beast stars Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator), an orphan who dreams of becoming a sea beast hunter like her parents were. Maisie narrates a five-minute introductory sequence that teaches us about the long war between sea beasts and hunters. This segment in particular suffers in comparison to the masterful opening minutes How to Train Your Dragon. But more strangely still, Maisie then complete disappears for nearly 20 minutes as we get another introductory segment. This one shows us the current state of affairs on a ship called the Inevitable. Its crew includes a grizzled sea dog named Captain Crow (Jared Harris), his adopted son and apprentice Jacob (Karl Urban), and first mate Sarah Sharpe (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). She has a peg leg and a mean streak, but she’s a woman, so we can be sure that she will have a soft-hearted maternal moment before the film wraps. That’s just the kind of movie The Sea Beast is.
But eventually — and it’s far too long of an “eventually,” almost 45 minutes — we meet the premise proper: Maisie, who stows away on the Inevitable, and Jacob get swallowed by a Red Bluster, the biggest and fiercest sea monster of all. I really like the scene that kicks this off and pretty much any segment that involves action on the seas. The effects animation in The Sea Beast, which was produced by Netflix but partially contracted to powerhouse Sony Pictures Imageworks, is absolutely outstanding. I might even get a little carried away and call this the best water has ever been rendered in a kids animated feature. (I would call it the best water in CGI history, but I suspect Avatar 2, which I haven’t seen yet, surpasses it.)
The water isn’t the only thing that looks great in the film. I’m not all that much of a stickler for CGI technical details, but even I noticed just how beautiful the lighting is. It’s often sourced from glowing fires or dusty sunbeams or translucent, illuminated water. The sea battles also include various flamethrower weapons which don’t entirely fit in the universe, but are still a huge treat to look at.
Anyways, Maisie and Jacob get swallowed by the giant Red Bluster, only for it to turn out that — *feigned surprise gasp* — the sea monster isn’t quite so mean as the hunters have made it out to be. Just a bit misunderstood. In fact, the Red Bluster saves Maisie and Jacob from the sea then gives them a ride to dry land. She lets them ride in… well, her nostril. For all the very good segments in this film, there really are a handful that are undercooked or just don’t make very much sense, and the nostril ride, so strange and unexplained presented as something glorious, is chief among them.
Maisie is the first to catch on that she should be befriending the sea monsters, not hunting them, and so she takes the initiative to name the Red Bluster that saved them. The name she lands on is — get this — Red.
The creature design in this film is not especially remarkable purely from a visual design perspective. Where it shines is in the way the creatures’ scope is evoked. Red is huge and intimidating and awesome. Her texturing is too smooth and rubber ducky-looking, but it hardly matters in most shots. She’s rendered as kaiju, an incomprehensibly large force.
Though Red is enormous, unlike the more dog-like Toothless, The Sea Beast pulls one of my favorite visual touches from How to Train Your Dragon, which is animating eyes with tons of life. Deeply animalistic yet expressive, the eyes make sure that we empathize. The effective visual representation of Red makes it easy to look over how little the script actually gives us to care about her as a character. I could’ve done with a few more scenes of bonding and observation of sea beast life in place of some of the human drama we end up with.
You know where this is all headed if you’ve seen How to Train Your Dragon. Big-scale culture clash transformed into physical confrontation. But I do want to briefly address the film’s finale, which falls off-template, so ending spoilers for the next two paragraphs.
In the midst of the struggle for whether to hunt or befriend Red is some business about the king and the queen threatening to end the order of the Hunters, and instead use its own military for slaying beasts. At first, I thought that this was a way to heighten the stakes for the Hunters, and nothing more than that. But as the film reaches its climax, it emerges as something more: Maisie deduces that the royalty have manufactured the threat of the sea beasts, who are actually peaceful and kind by nature, as some sort of manipulation and exploitation of the people and the sea creatures.
This ending is phenomenally stupid. I’m all about vilifying the upper class and self-serving institutions, but the way social revolution is depicted here makes absolutely no sense. First of all, it’s not even clear what the royalty gets out of this supposed conspiracy — it’s not as if the sea beasts provide food or resources. Second of all, Maisie makes one thirty-second speech to a crowd announcing what is essentially a wacky conspiracy theory with no evidence. And yet she immediately incites the fall of the kingdom? It’s outlandish and not clever enough to overcome its implausibility.
In spite of the baffling conclusion and the facetious tone with which I wrote this review, I really did like the Sea Beast for most of its runtime. The story is serious and ambitious, just lacking polish or much innovation. And some of the animation and visual design is terrific. It’s no How to Train Your Dragon, but then again, not many movies are.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film