It’s one thing to create an animated movie that wins kids over, but when the same film also delivers a rewarding experience for the adults watching along with them, that’s something special.
The Netflix film The Sea Beast is just that kind of movie, and it taps into that same elusive, all-ages appeal that studios like Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks have delivered so reliably in recent years.
Directed by Chris Williams from a script he penned with Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde: The Musical), The Sea Beast is set in a world where sea monsters and monster hunters have waged a war for control of the seas for generations. When a young girl stows away on a legendary monster-hunting ship, the friendship she forms with its famous hunter and their shared encounter with a terrifying monster leads them both to question the futures they once saw for themselves.
It makes sense that The Sea Beast channels that all-ages entertainment value, as the film is Williams’ solo directorial debut after co-directing two of Disney’s best films of the last decade: 2014’s Big Hero 6 and 2016’s Moana. Like those films, The Sea Beast finds a way to bring complicated themes down to a personal level that children can relate to, wrapping them in something both fantastic and familiar. And in doing so, its message lives in the common ground between generations — a place so many “family” films search for, but never find.
Along with its surface-level themes about the importance of opening your heart to the world around you and being open to change, The Sea Beast also delves into the terrible toll that obsession can take on us all (a theme that gives the film a Moby Dick-esque vibe), the importance of questioning history and tradition, and the way families can be something we create for ourselves rather than being born into. Each of those themes is a handful on its own, but the film weaves them all together masterfully, and delivers teachable moments that feel both organic to the story and universal, regardless of age.
Voicing Maisie, the young girl at the heart of the story, Zaris-Angel Hator (The Power, The Midnight Gang) gives a performance that’s more than simply precocious. Her dialogue delivery and the design and animation of her character — provided by Hotel Transylvania and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse studio Sony Pictures Imageworks — blend together perfectly, allowing her to steal every scene, come off wiser than her years, and provide some of the film’s most cheer-worthy moments.
Karl Urban (The Boys) voices the film’s famous monster hunter, Jacob Holland, and his performance offers a nice reminder of how engaging the New Zealand’s actor’s voice can be, even when he doesn’t appear on screen. The Dredd and Star Trek actor’s gruff voice gives Jacob a rougher edge than the character might otherwise have with a different actor, and it offers both a fresh perspective on Urban’s range and makes the character’s story arc and emotional journey feel more pronounced.
While Hator and Urban lead the film’s voice cast, good performances abound in The Sea Beast. Jared Harris (Chernobyl, Foundation) and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets & Lies, Without a Trace) are both exceptional as the ship’s captain and his first mate, respectively. The pair bring a depth and humanity to both of their characters, who could have easily slipped into the background or become tired tropes otherwise.
It’s worth noting that the musical element in The Sea Beast adds another fun layer to the film. Sea shanties have experienced a resurgence in popularity lately due to social media, and the film manages to pack quite a few into its two-hour running time. While they’re not nearly as memorable as the tracks in the typical, earworm-laden Disney films, they’re still entertaining and add even more era-appropriate, high-seas flavor to the film’s atmosphere.
Netflix still has a long ways to go to forge the sort of trust in quality, family-friendly entertainment that Disney, Pixar, and other well-established studios enjoy, but The Sea Beast offers a reassuring indication that it’s making the right decisions to get to that point.
The Sea Beast premieres July 8 on Netflix.
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