With the exception of “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” — which Netflix acquired from Sony a few short months before its release — and a handful of niche gems like “Apollo 10 ½” and “I Lost My Body,” the world’s largest streamer has done a spectacularly poor job of producing original animated movies that continue to exist once they leave people’s homepage. A swashbuckling family adventure that splits the difference between “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Master and Commander” while remaining just salty enough to stay afloat on its own strengths, Chris Williams’ (“Moana,” “Big Hero 6”) epic “The Sea Beast” suggests that the tide is potentially about to turn.
At the risk of grading “The Sea Beast” on too generous a curve, Williams’ film would stand out from the annual flood of sub-Pixar kiddie fare and generic subscription fodder even if it had nothing to offer beyond its self-belief. It tells a simple but epic story against the backdrop of a well-realized fantasy world, it does so at a measured pace that provokes the imagination rather than pummeling it into submission, and it stays on course by leveraging spectacular action (highlighted by several blistering pirate fights and a PG-rated kaiju brawl) into an effective fable about the perils of inherited prejudice.
If Williams’ first Netflix feature lacks the idiosyncratic touch required to become the kind of unforgettable classic that kids might be inspired to show their own someday — the tale’s wooden characters and unspectacular creature designs muting the special magic that a movie like this needs to become a truly formative experience — it’s hard to overstate how refreshing it is to watch an animated streaming movie that feels like it actually wants to be remembered.
Plunging us into the photorealistic waters of a sunny, sea-faring kingdom — picture 18th century British colonialism if the monarchy had permanently moved its headquarters to a floating Caribbean fortress city inspired by “The Phantom Menace” — “The Sea Beast” begins hundreds of years into a war between pirate-like hunters and the Godzilla-sized monsters that patrol their shipping lanes. The hunters are winning, thanks in large part to a legendary ship called the Inevitable. Commanded by the briny Captain Crow (Jared Harris unleashing his inner Ahab) and the square-jawed son he adopted as a child (Karl Urban voices the heroic Jacob Holland, the actor’s usual gruffness lightly rubbing against his character’s “Errol Flynn meets Easter Island” design), the Inevitable brings death wherever it sails.
Of course, every kid in town thinks the ship is cool as hell, and dreams of climbing aboard. That’s especially true of 11-year-old Maisie Brumble (Zaris-Angel Hator), who’s determined to become a monster hunter like her late parents, even if this good-natured scalawag doesn’t seem to share the same thirst for vengeance that typically inspires orphans to join the Inevitable. She’s in it for the adventure more than anything else, her youthful zeal and its attendant naïveté carrying this story along even as it clashes with the self-actualized wisdom Maisie finds the moment she finds herself in murky waters (a disconnect that would be easier to forgive in a movie that allowed its plucky heroine to entertain even a moment’s worth of personal doubt).
When the King and Queen task the Inevitable with killing the most fearsome beast of all — threatening, for reasons that are never adequately explained, to forever decommission the hunters in favor of the royal navy should they fail — Maisie doesn’t miss her chance to join the fight as a stowaway. It’s a fight that she doesn’t have the heart to win. When the Inevitable encounters the Red Bluster who Captain Crow has been stalking for all his years, Maisie is quick to doubt whether this overgrown Dreamworks reject with toy-smooth skin, hyper-expressive yellow eyes, and a fun pointy horn on its head could really be the murderous leviathan that generations of hunters have died in vain trying to kill. It won’t be too long before she and Jacob find themselves alone in the Red Bluster’s world, and at odds with the Inevitable, as they swirl closer to the bottom of the war that has defined their entire lives.
It will, on the contrary, be just long enough. It takes “The Sea Beast” more than 45 minutes of its uneven but engaging two-hour running time to reach the end of its first act and strand its lead characters on the Disney equivalent of Skull Island, and that time is used to enrich the film’s world in any number of ways.
Williams choreographs intricate sea battles that balance cartoonish kineticism with semi-realistic physics, honoring the history of naval combat while elevating it to thrilling new heights (the aerial views and underwater wide shots are more striking than anything in “The Pirates of the Caribbean”). He and co-writer Nell Benjamin introduce the crew of the Inevitable — most notably a one-legged officer voiced by “Secrets & Lies” star Marianne Jean-Baptiste — with a degree of detail that makes the ship feel like a family. And while everything about the lead characters is too bland and plasticky to stand up against such a vividly realized world, secondary figures like Captain Crow are designed with clever flourishes and brought to life with unexpected moral ambiguity.
That sense of something under the surface proves crucial to a movie that offers a pointed message about who writes our history. In its own, family friendly way, “The Sea Beast” grapples with the idea that it can be genuinely heroic for kids and adults alike to rethink the past they’ve been taught and author a more equitable future for themselves. It’s a valuable lesson for young people growing up in a tribalistic world in which history itself has become as much of a battlefield as the oceans ever were, and one delivered with enough care and panache to change the fate of Netflix Animation itself.
“The Sea Beast” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, July 8.