The Sea Beast, which channels Treasure Planet more than The Secret Life of Pets, is swashbuckling fun for kids and adults.
While many modern animated movies model themselves over classic 1990s Disney musicals, The Sea Beast evokes another era of American animation in its craft. Director Chris Williams’ (Big Hero 6, Moana) latest would’ve fit right in during the first few years of the 21st century. This is when action-packed retro adventures told in the medium of animation like Titan A.E. or Treasure Planet were common sights at your local movie theater. The only real difference between The Sea Beast and its spiritual predecessors is that the new feature is told entirely through computer-generated imagery rather than a combination of that artform with hand-drawn animation.
Those earlier projects experienced a barrage of box office woes and there’s certainly a scarcity of straightforward action animated movies at this scale in the modern world. So it’s a welcome surprise to see new titles like The Sea Beast hew closely to the feel of Jim Hawkins sky surfing on his futuristic glider. Given how enjoyable this production turns out to be, hopefully, it won’t be the last time we see new features made in this mold.
In The Sea Beast‘s world, there’s no greater occupation than being a hunter. The job consists of being your average pirate, but instead of scouring the globe for treasure, you take down big underwater beasties. Jacob Holland (Karl Urban) is an especially famous hunter whose legendary reputation has garnered the attention of orphan Maisie Brumble (Zaris-Angel Hator). She may be a child, but she already wants to follow in the footsteps of her parents and take down sea monsters.
Maisie’s got such a passion for the occupation that she ends up stowing away on Holland’s ship, The Inevitable, which is commanded by his adoptive father, Captain Crow (Jared Harris). Holland has no patience for a child aboard his vessel, but before he can even debate Brumble’s presence, a gigantic creature, The Red Bluster, attacks the ship. Holland and Brumble get separated from everyone else—eventually ending up stranded on an island full of beasts, which only exacerbates their fractured dynamic.
If there’s a problem with The Sea Beast being so clearly a cousin to the likes of Treasure Planet or later animated adventures like How to Train Your Dragon, it’s that the plot itself can be on the familiar side. Younger viewers may not recognize such details, but even audience members who aren’t quite teenagers yet will be able to predict how certain character arcs or plot beats will unfold. There are some bolder details nestled within the depths of The Sea Beast, so it’s a pity some aspects of its narrative are shallower when it comes to innovation.
Still, even if it treads familiar water at times, The Sea Beast is an enjoyable swashbuckling adventure. Much of this comes from its ability to commit to scenes of actual danger without feeling the need to undercut the tension with abrupt gags. Many of The Sea Beast‘s predecessors namely the likes of Atlantis: The Lost Empire or parts of the How to Train Your Dragon sequels, tended to hinder their deeper moments with too many comic sidekicks or broad, extraneous gags.
The Sea Beast, thankfully, improves on those prior productions by refusing to go for an easy belch or slapstick gag when danger is afoot. Instead, the screenplay by Williams and Nell Benjamin emphasizes darker action and environments to convey (through a kid-friendly lens) what a world built on cyclical violence and vengeance looks like. The duo also creates opportunities for quiet moments between Holland and Bumble to breathe, which ensures that each of our lead characters can come across as more than just broad archetypes.
This approach works just as well on a visual level for The Sea Beast as it does narratively. Without having to worry about delivering a gag a minute, Williams and the animation team instead focus on stuffing the various action set pieces with engaging imagery. For an early sequence depicting the Inevitable crew facing off against a sea monster, this means employing subtle touches in the camerawork, like instances of a simulated snap zoom, that accentuate the idea that you’re right in the middle of this high seas adventure.
A later set-piece, meanwhile, goes in a lighter tonal direction by depicting Holland and Bumble tied together while trying to evade The Red Bluster. The physical comedy here is realized through crisp camerawork while Joyce Arrastia’s editing deftly delivers well-timed visual gags built on how the actions of each character affect the other. Whether it’s conveying intensity or levity, The Sea Beast demonstrates skill in delivering engaging visual storytelling.
The Sea Beast’s willingness to improve on past animated films isn’t just limited to its more consistent tone. It also eschews the urge to mimic the star-studded casts of movies like Sing and instead culls together a collection of actors who aren’t household names but do fit their characters like a glove. Karl Urban, for instance, has long honed the skill of gruffness with a touch of charm and that translates well even into voice-over form. Acclaimed British thespians like Jared Harris and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, meanwhile, turn out to be naturally gifted at playing scurvy swashbucklers who throw around axes as often as words.
Whether you compare it to the hallmarks of other American animated features, action-oriented or otherwise, or just assess it on its own merits, The Sea Beast makes for an enjoyable watch. Plus, as someone who grew up in the Treasure Planet and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas era, it’s undeniably thrilling to see The Sea Beast harken back to the days of 2002. However, as the likes of Ghostbusters: Afterlife demonstrate, nostalgia can only get you so far.
What ensures that The Sea Beast makes waves is how thrilling it is for modern-day kids. This isn’t a film content to just placate older viewers with reminders of yesteryear. Instead, Williams and company craft something future generations could look back on with the same fondness I cradle for the likes of Titan A.E. Needless to say, that’s the kind of accomplishment that makes The Sea Beast a cinematic voyage worth taking.
The Sea Beast embarks on Netflix on July 7th, 2022.