“Live a great life and die a great death,” goes the mantra of the monster hunters in Netflix’s new animated movie “The Sea Beast.” It’s a spirited battle cry, sure, but it’s also a morbid one, made only more grisly by the fact that the first character to say it is a child.
At first, the world of this film, directed by Chris Williams (“Moana,” “Big Hero 6”) and written by Williams and Nell Benjamin, seems comfortably didactic. The people of an island kingdom have been raised to fear the giant sea monsters that stalk the ocean. Ships full of hunters heroically fell the beasts and bring bits of their carcasses home to the king and queen. It doesn’t take a genius to see the creepy side of this, or to wonder when the film will introduce its inevitable paradigm shift.
That shift is mainly instigated by a little girl named Maisie (voiced by Zaris-Angel Hator), the same character who first champions dying “a great death.” Orphaned when her two creature-hunter parents perished on the job, Maisie has raised herself on tales of loathsome beasts and the legendary sailors who slay them. She most idolizes a famous ship called the Inevitable. When the boat docks within striking distance of her stifling group home, she sneaks away to climb aboard.
The crew of the Inevitable has been ordered by royal decree to kill a massive monster called the Red Bluster. If the mission fails, the monarchy will decommission the ship. This adds stakes for Jacob (Karl Urban), an illustrious hunter who is next in line to be captain, and the aged Captain Crow (Jared Harris), who has held a grudge ever since he lost an eye to the beast. Jacob, who becomes Maisie’s unwitting comrade, has his own past marred by monstrosity.
“The Sea Beast” is capably animated. Its backgrounds and underwater shots are particularly stunning, though the characters’ facial expressions rarely live up to the enthusiastic voice acting. Its fantastical creatures range from uninspired (the Red Bluster) to irresistible (an aquatic sidekick of Maisie’s named Blue). There are other fun visual choices, like a beach with bubble-gum pink sand, and the film has an impressively diverse ensemble of background characters. Even when the story drags, a lively score by Mark Mancina keeps things zippy.
Of course, sluggish storytelling is not ideal, particularly in a movie intended for kids. “The Sea Beast” doesn’t earn its nearly two-hour running time; it easily could have stuck the landing if only it had fewer diversions. For instance, Captain Crow takes the Inevitable on a sinister side quest that introduces a character who, despite much dastardly foreshadowing, never resurfaces.
But this script’s greatest sin is its steadfast predictability. Lessons are learned and enemies are fought, but nothing very surprising happens in between. The unlikely duo assembles; the spunky little girl gets a cute animal as a buddy; good and evil are not actually as they seem. Last year, Pixar released “Luca,” which offers its own take on prejudice, found family and sea monsters, and it’s hard, while watching “The Sea Beast,” not to draw comparisons. “Luca” is by far the more heartfelt, original and stylish of the two.
The Sea Beast
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. Watch on Netflix.