The maps of the Dregmorr Sea are peppered with etchings of terrible monsters. But these aren’t a bored cartographer’s here-be-dragons doodlings: they’re on there as a spotter’s guide.
This watery expanse – the setting of this thumpingly enjoyable new animated swashbuckler from Netflix – is home to all manner of Godzilla-sized fiends, from the usual galleon-throttling molluscs and crustaceans to even stranger, heftier titans of the deep. Whenever one of these things breaches the surface, it won’t be long before it’s being hotly pursued by the Hunters: a loose collective of salt-stung Ahab types from the human kingdom down the coast, all sworn to rid the oceans of these abominations for good.
The Sea Beast was one of the last features to be completed at Netflix’s animation branch before it was dramatically scaled back last month as a result of falling subscriber numbers. Thank goodness it got out before the cuts bit.
In purely technological terms, it’s a little off the pace of a typical Disney or DreamWorks production, with a crisp, almost video-game-like appearance, and little in the way of the supercomputer-melting lighting and atmospheric effects currently found at the medium’s bleeding edge. But in terms of sheer energy and invention, it more than holds its own, and boasts action scenes whose wit, vibrancy and gracefulness make Lightyear look low on batteries.
It’s worth seeking out in cinemas before its launch on the platform early next month for its masterful use of scale alone: the beasts are persuasively immense, and the sea battles timber-creakingly epic, as the Hunters’ vessels pitch and roll into states of near-perpendicular treacherousness.
Of all the hands on deck, the safest pair belong to Jacob Holland (Karl Urban), who’s been both apprentice and heir apparent to Jared Harris’s Captain Crow, since the latter found him orphaned and bobbing on flotsam in the wake of an attack. Soon enough, the strapping Jacob acquires his own protégée: Maisie Brumble, voiced by the 18-year-old British actress (and former West End Matilda) Zaris-Angel Hator.
This pert young stowaway is an avid reader of Captain Crow’s exploits, and longs to join the Hunters’ cause. But after a skirmish with the fearsome Red Bluster – a scarlet dragon/whale hybrid of vast, container ship proportions – Maisie and Jacob end up marooned, then forge an unlikely alliance with the Bluster which makes their long-held heroes-versus-monsters worldview starts to look less certain than it once did.
The Sea Beast was directed and co-written by Chris Williams, a Disney veteran of 25 years. Shortly before leaving for Netflix, Williams co-wrote and co-directed Moana, and there are echoes of that wonderful film everywhere, from the basic premise of sending a mismatched pair on a maritime adventure to Maisie’s characterful mop of unruly curls. Its other influences are just as undisguised, from the creature design (pure How to Train Your Dragon) to bioluminescent shimmer straight from Avatar, plus a witchy interlude which owes a debt to the soothsayer scenes of 1989’s Asterix and the Big Fight.
Yet the voice cast ably secure The Sea Beast a personality of its own: Harris digs impressively deep as the pathos-soaked Crow (parents may shiveringly recall his Captain Francis Crozier in The Terror) while Hator delivers Maisie’s old-fashioned piratical turns of phrase in a contemporary London accent to utterly disarming effect. Together, they bring real emotional weight to a climax that vividly restates the age-old moral of King Kong: should you manage to capture an enormous animal who loathes you, perhaps think twice before smugly parading it through your home town’s most densely built-up neighbourhood.
PG cert, 114 min. In cinemas from Friday June 24, and on Netflix from Friday July 8