Directed by: Chris Williams
Distributed by: Netflix
Written by Patrick Hao
As Netflix struggles to gain and retain subscribers to its platform, one element that has been successful for them has been their investment in children’s content. If binge viewing is a model of their success, then what can be better than creating content that haggard parents can just plop their children in front of as a pseudo babysitter. As a byproduct, Netflix Animation has been created to try to gain both reputability amongst critics while becoming a rewatchable family affair like Disney films. Since 2019, after the release of their first in-house animated feature, “Klaus”, Netflix is beginning to figure out its house style.
Most of these features are co-productions with much more experienced studios and experienced directors. Filmmakers like Gil Keane, Kris Pearne, and Henry Sellick have all been lured over to make an animated film with Netflix. It’s not all just old auteurs like Fincher and Scorsese. “The Sea Beast” falls in line with Netflix Animation’s feature film production and is one step closer to them finding their voice as an animation house. Co-produced alongside Sony Pictures Imageworks, “The Sea Beast” is director Chris Williams’ first feature away from Disney, after a successful run of directing movies like “Moana” and “Big Hero 6.” It is also evident that Williams comes from the famous Disney Brain Trust, as “The Sea Beast” has all the narrative hallmarks of a modern Disney animated film.
“The Sea Beast” is set in a fantasy 18th Century in which the ruling power is confined to a Caribbean island. There, the seafaring people are in a constant back-and-forth battle with sea monsters, especially the red monster known as the Red Bluster. On board, the legendary ship known as The Inevitable, is Jacob Holland (voiced by Karl Urban), the adopted son of the ship’s captain, Captain Crow (voiced by Jared Harris). When 11-year-old orphan Maisie (voiced by Zaris-Angel Hator) who dreams of becoming a monster hunter becomes a stowaway on board The Inevitable, she excitedly joins the ship in one of its already numerous encounters with Red Bluster. Through the battle, which is directed with excited Kaiju-like fervor, Maisie figures that the monster is not really a monster after all. This realization leads her and Holland to be stranded on the island of monsters where they befriend Red.
Of course, any attune audience member will know that Red is not evil at all. Red is animated with the smoothness of any cute CGI creature with bi-expressive doe-like eyes. That is the overall problem with the film. While it is clear that much more care was put into this film than many of the other generic animated goop that is released onto streaming services, “The Sea Beast” cannot escape the sterile smoothness that animated features made without the resources of Disney fall prey to. Furthermore, the bulky character design skews too closely to “How to Train Your Dragon” territory.
There are sparks of creativity, especially with the battle scenes, but none can overcome the overall blandness of the feature. The film continues a trend of animated films pointing to a lesson about overcoming inherited prejudices but the messaging feels more hollow than usual. I believe that the filmmakers feel deeply about such things, but it feels like a fable without much conviction.
If anything, it will be interesting to continue to chart the progression of Netflix Animation. The studio, still in its beginning phase, seems to be adhering too close to what has been successful in children’s animation. “The Sea Beast” is very much that formula. If the studio truly wants to break out beyond becoming fodder for toddlers, it will be important for them to figure out what makes them creatively different. Until then, their animated features will just feel like pale imitations.
“The Sea Beast” Trailer
“The Sea Beast” is streaming on Netflix.