Director Rémi Chayé has cited Russian artist Ilya Repin as an influence on the look of Long Way North. Repin’s style of intricately detailed realism, in which every face is painted with individualized precision, is worlds away from Chayé’s highly abstracted animation style, in which the outlines of the drawings have been removed, leaving only color fills and the bare essential details. But Chayé shares Repin’s penchant for dramatic lighting and striking compositions (he even cribs Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga for one shot), which perfectly suit the film’s epic adventure narrative, following 15-year-old Sacha (Christa Théret), the strong-willed scion of an aristocratic family, as she sets off to the Arctic to find her grandfather, Oloukine (Feodor Atkine), who never returned from his expedition to the North Pole two years prior.
Long Way North gets off to a slow start in czarist St. Petersburg, where Sacha’s family is embroiled in a bit of generic political intrigue. While these scenes offer some beautifully rendered interpretations of the great Russian port city’s architecture, the film doesn’t really kick into gear until its second half, when it turns into a gorgeous and gripping Arctic survival tale with immaculately rendered ice floes and glaciers. These scenes proceed with a quiet tension that complements, rather than detracts from, Chayé’s visuals.
Chayé demonstrates a masterful command of landscapes and lighting effects, making some especially convincing approximations of dusk and magic hour. Having previously worked on well-regarded films like Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey’s The Secret of Kells and Jean-François Laguionie’s The Painting, Chayé has developed a stunning compositional eye that merits comparison to landscape painters like Jean-François Millet and Caspar David Friedrich.
Long Way North is very much a film by and for animation lovers, with none of the broad humor or exaggerated emotions of most children’s animation today. If anything, it may be a bit too tasteful for its own good. While it’s nice to see a strong female character like Sacha drive the narrative, Chayé never develops any real emotional connection to her story, and even with the action-adventure trappings of its plot, the overall tone of the film is rather bloodless. Still, even if Long Way North’s narrative makes for a bland frame, there’s no denying the beauty of the picture it holds.