Thursday, February 9, 2023

How to train your leviathan


Directed by Chris Williams
Written by Nell Benjamin and Chris Williams

Spoilers: moderate (high, technically, but anybody over twelve is getting ahead of this film by the time they've seen the trailer for it)

In one of those rather suggestive coincidences, in 2022 the two co-directors of 2015's Big Hero 6, Don Hall and Chris Williams, each separately made another animated featureand at two separate studios, mind youthat were, fundamentally, the exact same movie.  Hall, a company man who's stuck with Walt Disney Animation Studios through thick and thicker since Big Hero 6, made Strange World, offered to an indifferent public over Thanksgiving and winding up the studio's biggest flop of all time, and deservedly so, since it was terrible.  Chris Williams, meanwhile, starting alongside Hall at WDAS all the way back on 1998's Mulan as a story artist, but spending the last several years being nebulously employed at the company doing stuff that Wikipedia marks under the category "other," struck out to helm his own film for Netflix (which is to say, Sony Pictures Imageworks, the fine fellows behind... uh, wow, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs sure was a long time ago).  Over the course of four years Williams made The Sea Beast, beating Hall to the punch by a good five months, getting his film into a pro forma theatrical release in June and a streaming release shortly thereafter, where it became Netflix's most successful animated feature ever, whatever "success" means to them, which made it a shoo-in for "the fifth one" of the 95th Academy Awards' quintet of Best Animated Feature nominations.

That represents two pretty divergent fates for "the exact same movie"and as they are obviously rather different in aesthetic, and at least somewhat different in quality, no, they're not exactly the same, but if I said, "in 2022 there was released a cartoon about a fantasy land where an entire society's way of life turns out to actually be pernicious; and one of the central characters learns that their lifestyle of high adventure is actually built on an outmoded brand of heroism; and it's an ecofable overseen by one of the directors of Big Hero 6 that ends by overprosecuting its argument till it resembles a right-wing parody of left-wing thought; and also both have a toyetic blue monster sidekick character," you surely wouldn't know which one I was talking about, except you might quibble that The Sea Beast doesn't actually manage to be an ecofable except looking like one, on which count I might concede you're correct.  (This one's toyetic blue monster sidekick character is named "Blue.")  But the main thing is they're both Avatar knock-offs.  The Sea Beast of course also resembles an Avatar: The Way of Water knock-off, but besides this criticism being unfair, that's principally just because both are about sea beasts and use crypto-19th century whaling as a font of villainy.  (But wait!  Williams and Hall also co-directedin the stricter sense of the term "co-directed," in that they were credited as "co-directors" under directors/legends Ron Clements and John MuskerMoana, the seal of Disney's Second Renaissance, and Moana was itself also an ecofable, indeed, plausibly the best ecofable.  I suppose the implication is that Williams and Hall were more important to story development there than I'd previously assumedthat is, they were more than Clements & Musker's IT guysbut, ironically, the closer Williams and Hall's post-Moana work has looked like Moana, the more it becomes even more apparent than it already was that Clements & Musker were absolutely that film's authors.  Bizarrely, The Sea Beast concludes on a note that effectively makes it the anti-Moana.)

If it's in a competition with Strange World, anyway, The Sea Beast wins by being neither so thoroughgoingly aggravating nor so totally broken, though that doesn't mean it isn't intermittently aggravating, nor more-or-less broken.  So: it begins with a pair of similarly-fated kidsone is Jacob (Karl Urban as an adult), the victim of a shipwreck caused by some barely-glimpsed monster beneath the waves, who was rescued by Captain Crow (Jared Harris) of the Inevitable, the most famed of the great monster hunters of his age.  Raised by the captain, Jacob has proven himself over the years, having risen to become his father figure's second mate, subordinate only to Crow and his taciturn first mate Sarah Sharpe (Marianne Jean-Baptiste); being his father's adoptive son, he's the next-in-line for the evidently-hereditary position of the captaincy.  The other kid is Maisie Brumble (Zaris-Angel Hator), orphaned much the same way as Jacob many years down the line, and she's a worshipful fan of hunters like Crow and Sharpe (she is, for whatever reason, extremely rude at all times to Jacob, presumably because the screenplay thinks it's amusing).  But of course she's worshipful.  They're heroes, after all: as her hagiographic history books tell her, over the past two centuries they've managed to press those sea monsters hard enough that coastal settlements are no longer under threat, and the sea lanes are at least safer than they once were.

Well, there's basically no reason to watch the movie now, is there?  Not, in any event, for its plot: you know exactly what happens, when, and how (why is foggy), and I probably don't even really need to say, "Maisie wants to join the Inevitable's crew, and, undeterred by Jacob's blandishments to stick close to her desk and never go to sea, she stows away, and when she and Jacob are thrown overboard during a battle with one of those monsters and marooned, they learn the shocking facts about the real nature of their adversaries."  With the most passing awareness of current narrative fads, you could just fill that in yourself, which is why it's kind of remarkable that The Sea Beast runs fully 119 minutesmore like 110 once you subtract Netflix's very long credits roll, but it's still an awful long time to laboriously drag out a series of obvious events.

I don't want to make it sound like I find "obvious" bad on principle, and there are some compensations here: for one, The Sea Beast prompts the question "can effects animation be too good for the movie it's in?"  Okay, I've immediately backslid into being mean, but Imageworks has delivered some startlingly good effects animation, which makes sense, because they're as much of a VFX house as they are a cartoon studio.  The water looks absolutely splendid, and in a tremendous variety of ways, not just "photorealism, the end," though photorealism is certainly in its kit.  The very first frames are a statement of purpose to this effect, with the roiling hulk of a burning, sinking tall ship in the background providing the "illumination" on poor young Jacob, clinging to life on a piece of flotsam, yet the water itself is a surreal mint green, painterly and sort of glowing of its own accord but in an extremely well-done, subtle way.  I don't think the film ever quite looks better than these first shots, though there's a lot of interesting uses of water to come, particularly in terms of its translucency, so that a sufficiently big and brightly-hued object several meters below the surface registers as a great, enormous blotch of wavering color, a horrifying intimation of something far bigger than the ship that's here to "hunt" it.  And so on, and not only water: there are signal flares, flames, explosions (there are some awesome flames and explosions), numerous lighting effects generally, and even a whole supernaturally-tinged island, where everything is unaccountably puke green.

We do, naturally, see those monsters soon enough, and there's a pleasant cartooniness to them, first and foremost in their colors (it's a very bright and poppy movie, so it certainly has that going for it), but also a sort of rubbery bath toy quality to their surfaces that I enjoyedit doesn't necessarily negate the threat they present, but does give The Sea Beast the path of least resistance out of "oceanic horror" and into "neat kaiju movie."  And the layout is also kinda great, from just plain nicely iconic shots of monsters and ships (there's a lot of very angular shot design here) to the exploitation of all the possibilities inherent to staging tall ship action scenes with a free-roaming "camera."  It's not the "gimme my pirate cartoon now, Goddamnit" that I asked for back with The Adventures of Tintin, and it has a tendency to be jokier than I think it ought (but a lot less than it could be), but it's not all that far off when it's working as a purely kinetic experience.  And I do rather like the "nautical dialect" the voice actors are obliged to employ.

Though I guess what makes all this startling, as I said, is that the character animation that's married to this effects animation, strong layout, etc., is inexplicably badnot film-destroyingly awful, and one eventually gets used to it, but every character feels like they were rigged before Tangled hit theaters, and only the hair algorithms (which possibly fall under "effects animation" themselves) ever really suggest otherwise.  It can be kind of uncanny to see these figures against splashing water; the one who survives it best is likely Sharpe, who makes an impression out of proportion to her screentime or importance because she's the one whose design and personality dovetail the best with the limitations of the animation (Jean-Baptiste's performance is one-note "imperiously stern," but she wins MVP just for being so pitch-perfect at supplying that personality within the small space afforded her; and as far as character design goes, she has the only one I really love, as otherwise there's too much cartoonishness, particularly Crow as a barrel-chested, ape-pawed brute three times the size of Jacob, who's already twice the size of everybody else).  But anyway, what blew me down here, bad-animation-wiselike, I had to rewind it to be sure I wasn't hallucinatingwas the moment, in this Oscar-nominated animated feature from 20-freaking-22, where Karl Urban says "huh" and Jacob does not, actually, open his mouth.  As an experiment, try saying "huh"not "hh," not "hm," an aspirate consonant with an open-mid back unrounded vowel "huh"without opening your fucking mouth.  His character's face just... sits there on the screen, an inhuman, immobile block.

Nothing about the animation is ever this incompetent again, but dumbfoundingly it might not be the most incompetent thing about the movie's overall manufacture: The Sea Beast starts well even if you can spot one of the things that'll ruin it a mile awayMaisie is just the most brutal know-it-all kid protagonist you could imagine, though, weirdly, very little would actually have to change about this story if she weren't in itbut that first action scene gives reason to be cautiously optimistic, at least until it ends.  Just like I've never seen a blatant "dubbing" mistake in a major CGI animated feature, I don't know if I've ever seen anything like this, either, when Crow, going for the glorious deathblow, is sucked down into the abyss by a sinking green monster.  He's pulled into the darkness; blackness swallows the screen; then cut to a POV shot through the bleary eyes of our captain, saved from certain death.  Somehow.  It's like someone saw the editing gags in that montage in Trolls wherein Poppy keeps mysteriously surviving getting eaten, and they decided they'd use it instead as a serious dramatic tool, but also not call any attention to it whatsoever, like it was simply the most utterly natural thing to be pulled 200 feet underwater by a tentacle, lose consciousness as your lungs fill with water, and, I suppose, just bob your way right back up to the surface.  Every twenty minutes or so, The Sea Beast will trot out another one of these mad incomprehensibilities: the next time is when Jacob and Maisie get munched by the "Red Bluster" monster they're after, and while I'll chalk up "they don't get swallowed, or asphyxiate" to "it's a cartoon," when the pair investigate the sinus cavities of this Bluster, they sit down in it like a couple of boogers in its nostrils, so they can, Lord, take in the awesome sights of the undersea realm.  Again, it's hallucinatory, because I have no idea, none, what was keeping the water out.  It's like a piece of glass, or a forcefield.  It's insane.

But I'm getting hung up on little things, perhaps in the hope of illuminating the big thing, and the big thing here is that this screenplay elides everything.  That's where those complaints about 119 minutes come from, because there is no reason for a cartoon this long to cut every possible corner in its storytelling, and I'm not even 100% sure how it manages to do so with this much room to work with; nevertheless, the very core of the narrative is, almost explicitly, "You've already seen How To Train Your Dragon, right?"  Which is burying the lede hard (though I put it in the title), but it's so obvious that it's not even fun to discuss how actionably similar the giant Red Bluster is to a certain Night Fury, scaled-up, palette-swapped, and rendered devoid of any personality.  Nor is it especially fun to discuss that Williams is happy to use this to not explain, for example, why "Red" saves two people trying to kill it, or does their bidding, other than because of her basic good nature.  But do you remember all that interstitial stuff in Dragon, where Toothless and Hiccup built their relationship and trust came hard for a wounded dragon?  It turns out that's where its beating heart lay.  Which seems extravagantly obvious to me, but then I'm not in the business of ripping off other Chrisses' masterpieces to fuel my own career.

This is not, however, reckoning with the deviation it makes, inasmuch as in Dragon the humans were killing dragons for a reason, while in thiswell, I suppose this is "SPOILERS," but I'm not sure this is a spoilable movie, except to the extent describing how little sense it makes is a spoiler.

It is, of course, bad to kill sea monsters because sea monsters are goodnot something the film manages to make an unassailable case for, frankly, besides the inductive process, "Red is a good sea monster, therefore all sea monsters, including different species, including the ones that attack humans on sight, which in fact often includes Red, must be good"but anything more complex than that is a whirling storm of half-thought-through ideas.  The world here is a total wash, soup to nuts.  Big stuffthere's an entire, largely superfluous subplot about an evil scientist/wizard/Satan from Faust who sells forbidden weapons, including poison, without any real explanation why poisoning these things you already torture to death is off the table, except the sky is sickly green now so it must be pretty darned sinister.  Little stuffthe royal marines sent monster hunting have affixed bayonets to their muskets, I guess because the designers had never seen a picture of 19th century soldier without fixed bayonets on their muskets, though I strongly doubt these would prove useful against a kraken.  There's another subplot here, about a bureaucratic conflict between privateer monster hunters being superseded by professionalized, naval monster hunters.  Why?

Above all, there's the idea at the center of the film, and because of how heavily Maisie's uncritical acceptance of her tomes of sea legendry gets stressed, it's hard to call it a twist when it turns out the kingdom has been peddling propaganda, that indeed the kingdom began this war on the monsters itself, for its own aggrandizementand how this incredible expenditure of resources on something that's apparently actually pointless aggrandizes anybody besides maybe Big Shipwright is a mystery that becomes a screaming, sucking void right in the middle of the story.  Like, I get it, it's fundamentally just one more dumbassed kid's allegory: turns out it's not about whaling, specifically (there's so little economic exploitation of these monsters they don't even usually bother bringing anything back from their carcasses besides a token of their destruction); nor is it about how to live in harmony with nature, except maybe coincidentally.  It's about how and who teaches history, and for what purpose, and while that's a perfectly meaty topic, I'm not sure if it translates well to an adventure narrative, and The Sea Beast would seem to agree with me, given it winds up like thissomehow skipping straight ahead to the tinfoil hat to find a lot more in common with psychotic Great Tartaria/Phantom Time Hypothesis/Protocols conspiracy theory than with sober-minded historical revisionism.  (Say, perhaps they harvest the sea monsters for their gigantic adrenal glands.)  As to how this happened without anyone noticing, I expect it's simply that nobody actually cared, so it just sort of makes gestures towards whatever Williams and co-screenwriter Nell Benjamin thought sounded like something that would win them plaudits; which it did.  But, ultimately, this film's message was merely one more template to dispassionately fill alongside everything else, though this template, too, is stolen from the How to Train Your Dragon franchise.  (As are numerous actual shots.)  And then it ends, happilyso it assertswith a "we never sailed [the sea] again."  Inspiring.

It could've just been about fucking whaling, guys.

Score: 5/10


  1. I was a little higher on this overall than you, though I landed on a 6/10 equivalent, so maybe not much more. I just really dug the sea battles and some of the compositions that made the monster feel huge.

    Anyways, I didn't notice the mouth sync gaffe, but I definitely believe it. I strongly encourage you to stay away from (or rapidly acquire if you're into hate-watching) Luck, which was plagued with animation 101 issues.

    1. Also I very much latched on to the HTTYD comparisons. Completely agree

    2. The effects animation and monsters are basically what fully separate this from Strange World, where all that stuff has no personality or even threat. Well, it also helps that the characters, though uninteresting, aren't constantly annoying.