The Sea Beast
Directed by Chris Williams
Starring Karl Urban, Zaris-Angel Hator, Jared Harris
Released June 08, 2022, streaming exclusively on Netflix
Netflix Animation, the streaming behemoth’s in-house animation studio, has only produced a handful of films since launching in 2019 with the Christmas film Klaus. The studio’s output prior to this year suggested no cohesive approach or guiding vision: a few unremarkable children’s movies here, an outrageous adult comedy about American history there. Netflix Animation has come into 2022 swinging and ready to make its mark, however. In April, Richard Linklater’s intimate Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood premiered; later this year, the studio seems poised to make a splash with My Father’s Dragon, a co-production with the multi-award-winning Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, as well as with Henry Selick’s new film and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.
If these projects seem calibrated to earn the studio some artistic credibility (and maybe an Oscar), The Sea Beast is Netflix Animation’s move into the classic Disney space. In fact, writer/director Chris Williams made his name at Disney, spending many years in the story department there and eventually co-directing three pictures (including Big Hero 6 and Moana, two of my favorite animated Disney films of the last decade). Williams makes his solo directorial debut with The Sea Beast, and his first outing post-Disney could easily sit with his former employer’s best output.
The Sea Beast follows the adventure of famous monster hunter Jacob Holland (voiced by Karl Urban) and Maisie Brumble (Zaris-Angel Hator), a young orphan girl who has stowed away on the ship where Jacob serves. Jacob has made his name hunting sea monsters on The Inevitable under the legendary Captain Augustus Crow (Jared Harris). Maisie idolizes the entire crew of The Inevitable and wants nothing more than to be a hunter herself. The hunters, everyone is told, keep the high seas safe and ensure the well-being and expansion of the empire. When a fight with one of the biggest monsters in the sea goes sideways, Jacob and Maisie come to learn that perhaps the hunters’ mission isn’t as righteous as they’ve both been led to believe.
The Sea Beast borrows freely from eighteenth-century material culture for the look of its sumptuously realized environments, on land and sea, even though the film’s setting doesn’t replicate any historical time period. The racial diversity of the characters and the names of some of the locations—like Rumpepper Island, for example—suggest a sort of fantasy Caribbean setting. This, combined with the design of the hunters’ clothing and accessories, lends the whole film a vaguely piratical aesthetic that will please anyone (of any age) who might still be in their “pirate phase.”
I love pirates, and I love giant monsters, so it’s probably no surprise that I was immediately taken with this film. But The Sea Beast rewarded my blind trust at every turn. The rigorously choreographed action sequences, in particular, are a highlight. Each action set piece is conceived as a kaiju battle, and the film never loses a sense of just how enormous “them beasts,” as the characters in the film call the creatures, are. The consistent consideration of scale gives the fight scenes an appropriate air of grandeur and, well, epicness. In addition, The Sea Beast is handsomely animated; the attention given to the surface texture details on the sea monsters stands out as an especially striking example of this.
On a story level, The Sea Beast also satisfies. The plot unfolds in three distinct acts, and the deliberate pacing permits each emotional beat room to breathe. The film isn’t manically paced or jam-packed with jokes, instead allowing the drama to stand on its own. Even Maisie’s cute baby monster sidekick, advertised heavily in the trailer, is only sparingly used for comedic relief. While still remaining family-friendly, of course, the movie doesn’t oversimplify the emotional stakes or gloss over the implications of its pretty clearly anti-imperialist final lessons.
The Sea Beast works splendidly by combining gorgeous visuals, swashbuckling action, colossal monsters, and a time-honored adventure sensibility with gently progressive morals. If Netflix doesn’t bury it, this movie could become a family film classic.