Monday, April 15, 2024

‘The Sea Beast’ Shows Us Where the True Monsters Be

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I don’t know what I was expecting from The Sea Beast before I watched it. But a sea-faring tale about how the rich and powerful have fomented a years-long war and quasi-genocide via state-funded propaganda, otherwise known as history books, was not on my bingo card. 

Chris Williams’s The Sea Beast is a gorgeous children’s movie with a lot on its mind. Williams and his animators tell the story with the same brash energy as “Captain Blood” and other books like it. A yo-ho-ho and bottle of rum sea shanty, The Sea Beast, has in it the capacity to leave us breathless. It is a film with boundless energy that nonetheless will slow down and allow the vastness of the sea and of our world to wash over its audience.

Williams, who co-wrote the script with Nell Benjamin, plunges us into the action by starting off his film on the great hunting ship “The Inevitable” and its rag-tag courageous crew. Led by Captain Crow (Jared Harris), a growly sea-dog of a man with his weathered eyepatch and bulky frame, he seems larger than life. His first mate, Sarah Sharpe (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), of whom it is said there is no more loyal first mate than Sarah Sharpe. 

Then there’s the dashing Jacob Holland (Karl Urban), the square-jaw Captain Kidd-like heir to The Inevtable’s captaincy. An orphan, Jacob was adopted by Captain Crow and taught the ways of the Hunter. And what do they hunt? Simple, here there be monsters.

Drawing on the infamous old sea tales of giant squids and monsters, The Sea Beast takes the concept of sailors and explorers mistaking the creatures of the sea as horrifying creatures of the damned and runs with it. Williams and Benjamin set up a world where man and sea beasts are not just opponents but bitter enemies hellbent on eradicating the other from existence. The hunters treat their kills like trophies, wearing pieces of them as symbols of their superiority.

Being a story about pirates, there must be an orphan — for all pirate stories must have an orphan, it is in the genre’s bones. Here the orphan is a little Black girl Maise Brumble (Zaris-Angel Hator). She has spent many a restless night pouring over the adventures of Captain Crow and his crew. Maise’s parents were hunters too but perished on the high seas while battling a monster. This is an important fact because it is Maise who begins to suspect that maybe the monsters are not all that scary.

As gung-ho as the other hunters, Maise has bought into the stories told by her history books. She’s in awe of Jacob, who has killed four beasts in two days, “five actually.” But after a run-in with the Red Bluster, a massive crimson beast who took Captain Crow’s eye, she begins to suspect that there’s more to them than meets the eye. 

Then there’s Captain Crow’s obsession with killing the Red Bluster. A mission that, once completed, will allow him to retire and hand over the ship to Jacob. But after meeting with the King and Queen, he discovers that it is the hunters who may well be about to be extinct. The royals have built a naval ship, “The Imperator”, a behemoth of a ship built for only one purpose. The elite are unhappy when they learn Captain Crow had the Red Bluster in his sights but chose to help another ship in peril instead.

The Hunters have a code. “It binds us to all who have come before and all who come after.” The rich and powerful have no such loyalties. 

Maise stows away on the Inevitable and impresses Captain Crow with her spirit. Not to mention her story about her parent’s death. Captain Crow, no stranger to orphans, allows her to stay, much to Jacob’s chagrin. Jacob doesn’t want her there, not because he doesn’t like her, but because a monster-hunting ship is no place for a child. Though Captain Crow reminds him it was good enough for Jacob.

Had Williams and Benjamin merely stayed on this course, The Sea Beast would be a fun little romp. But they have bigger fish to go after, and soon, Maise and Jacob fall overboard, get rescued by the Red Bluster, and find themselves on a strange island. Eventually, Maise begins to suspect all is not as she’s been told. Even Jacob, after reading Maise’s books, is shocked to learn a coast he and the others have sailed along multiple times is supposed to house the ruins of a great city destroyed by a monster. And if that’s true, then maybe the story about a monster stealing a woman out of her vegetable garden, regardless of the fact that no one seems to know who this woman is and has never happened again since, might be fabricated as well.

Amidst all the glossy animation and detailed textures, Maise’s bouncy curls are especially life-like, The Sea Beast looks at how righteous anger can be manipulated and fomented over time. Especially when there is very real profit to be made by people who have no hand in the very violence they encourage. Pretty heady stuff for a children’s movie.

The Sea Beast in many ways juggles similar themes as Thor: Love and Thunder only with a more focused script. The dialogue is fun, a mix of pirate-speak, which never gets old for me, and a dry sense of humor. Such as when Captain Crow sees the Imperator and airs his criticisms. “She rests too low. And them fixed cannons is useless. And her captain is an ass.”

Williams keeps a steady course throughout the movie, and while I found the resolution just a little too vague yet tidy, I can’t deny my love for this scrappy movie. The Sea Beast is another example of having a fine cast of actors, but I’m left wondering what it might have been had they hired actual voice actors. Urban, Harris, and Jean-Baptiste are delightful as always, but their performances, while good, feel slightly off. Young Hator is one of the few voices whose range seems appropriate for animation.

Still, The Sea Beast is far too charming and lushly animated to be bogged down by any of that. I found myself leaning forward in my seat, enraptured by the movie’s adventurous ambiance. The Sea Beast smuggles themes of anti-colonialism into a stunning, and at times arresting, children’s tale of the high seas. 

Images courtesy of Netflix

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