"Long Way North" is a complete pleasure, a gorgeous piece of wide-screen animation that is as delightful as it is unexpected.
Unexpected because it is the feature debut for French animator Remi Chaye, though the fact that it won the audience award at the prestigious Annecy International Animation Film Festival was probably a tip-off as to its quality.
Also a good sign was Chaye's background as first assistant director and head of storyboard for Tomm Moore's gorgeous, Oscar-nominated "The Secret of Kells," a film with similar visual strengths.
"Long Way North" is set in the late 19th century in both Russia's Saint Petersburg and the far reaches of the polar north (the French title "Tout en Haut du Monde" literally translates as "At the Top of the World").
As written by Claire Paoletti and Patricia Valeix with an assist from Fabrice de Costil, "Long Way North" is considerably more than its splendid images, especially when experienced in the original subtitled French version.
In fact, its story of the adventurous journey made by Sacha, the 15-year-old daughter of an aristocratic family, at times puts our heroine in so much peril that the very smallest audience members might be disconcerted.
The key emotional relationship in Sacha's life is with Olukine (voiced by Feodor Atkine), her heroic Arctic explorer grandfather, who has been missing for two years.
That's when his ship, the Davai, disappeared, and not even a million-ruble reward offered by the Tsar has turned up so much as a trace of it.
The teenage Sacha (Christa Theret) is introduced sneaking into the Academy of Sciences to visit the library named after her grandfather. She overhears the Tsar's new scientific counselor, Prince Tomsky (Fabirn Briche) saying disparaging things about Olukine. (Having the aristocrats speaking French, the actual language of the Russian court, works quite nicely.)
The despair of her parents for her independent attitude, Sacha comes across a document of her grandfather's that indicates that people have been searching for him in the wrong place.
When no one listens to her, least of all the supercilious Prince Tomsky, she takes off on her own for the city of Arkhangelsk, the port where all voyages to the Far North begin.
Though Sacha is bold, "Long Way North" understands that she will have to be toughened up for an Arctic voyage to be plausible. So this young noblewoman, more at home with blini than borscht, ends up experiencing the hard-knock life by working as a scullery maid under the demanding eye of owner Olga (Delphine Braillo) at a scruffy tavern called the White Bear.
Sacha makes a connection with two brothers, Captain Lund (Loic Houdre) and first mate Larson (Remi Caillebot), who own the vessel that ends up taking her on her journey, the Norge (inspired by the Endurance, Ernest Shackleton's ship).
Even while the action of "Long Way North" was in Saint Petersburg, its images of the city's stunning pastel-color palaces and heavy snow falling on the river Neva were gorgeous. Chaye's visual style, mostly hand-drawn with occasional use of computer animation, employs blocks of rich, saturated color to marvelous effect.
Once the Norge heads toward the North Pole in the hope of finding Olukine and his ship (and collect that reward), the imagery gets even more beautiful and more intense.
For "Long Way Home" excels at providing a great sense of the stunning, unnerving vastness of the north. Storms at sea make us gasp, enormous icebergs are appropriately majestic, and when fog rolls over the ice, we definitely feel the chill.
Of course, things continue to be difficult for Sacha on her journey, as everything from rebellious crew members to an obstreperous polar bear provide obstacles. But nothing daunts our heroine for long, and "Long Way North" makes us believe in her quest every step of the way.
MPAA rating: PG for some peril and mild language.
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
Playing Laemmle's Monica, Santa Monica; Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Edwards University Town Center, Irvine..
Critic's Choice. "Long Way North." This story of a young girl's journey to the Arctic in search of her grandfather at the end of the 19th century is a complete pleasure, a gorgeous piece of wide-screen animation that is as delightful as it is unexpected. — Kenneth Turan