‘Long Way North’ Review: Gorgeous Visuals Undermined by Flat Characters in Animated Adventure

Hauntingly beautiful images of Czarist-era St. Petersburg and Arctic fjords pop more than the two-dimensional personalities who inhabit them

Lovely visuals are key for the success of any animated film, arguably more so even than for live-action movies. But a compelling story is also essential, and that’s where “Long Way North” trips up.

This tale of a late 19th Century Russian teen on an Arctic quest is undeniably dazzling to behold, but as an epic action-adventure saga it must, by definition, be exciting and brisk. It is instead stately and a bit bland.

Intrepid young aristocrat Sacha (voiced in the English-language version by Chloé Dunn) has a lifelong fascination with the adventurous exploits of her grandfather, a famous scientist and Arctic explorer. When he doesn’t return from an expedition to the North Pole, the feisty 14-year-old sets out from St. Petersburg on a quest to find his ship. These plans upset her parents, who have been planning her marriage.

Sacha finds a clue indicating that search parties may have been looking in the wrong place. Stubborn and strong-willed, she rushes off to find the Davai, the steamship on which her grandfather Olukine (Geoffrey Greenhill) sailed away. Sounds intriguing enough, but rather than get our pulses racing as Sacha faces deception, conflict and peril along the way, the plodding narrative of “Long Way North” has a soporific affect.

This French-made film won the audience award at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, no doubt for its simple, vivid and lovely hand-drawn style. Given its exquisite look, the blandness of its storytelling is all the more disappointing.

Director Rémi Chayé, making his feature debut here, reveals an aesthetic that involves removing the outlines of drawings and keeping the color fills. His style particularly works in depicting the spare, vast landscapes of the Arctic.

Chayé started his career as a sketch artist and illustrator for educational books and was an animator on the exquisitely gorgeous “The Secret of Kells.” With drawings pared down to essences, he eliminates detailed realism and focuses instead on lighting, composition and striking colors. There is much to admire in his minimalist and elegant stylistic renderings. The enchanting use of color — the pale wintry sun, the shades of grey on the roving wolves  — is noteworthy. Perhaps Chayé’s style would have been better suited for a more placid and ruminative tale.

The strong-willed Sacha has the gumption to leave her home in a grand palace in Czarist Russia, to risk her life to find her grandfather’s ship. But her adventure takes some time to get underway, and by the time she sets off for the North Pole, the audience has had to endure some boring bureaucratic boilerplate and predictable familial clashes.

Before Sacha embarks on her Arctic escapade she must barter some family jewels (in the form of pricey earrings) for passage with a tough Nordic seafaring crew. Once she does, things pick up a bit amid the frozen landscape, as vividly depicted with Chayé’s well-trained eye for composition.

The blue of the skies while Sacha sails on the open sea is gorgeous, as is the fading daylight through the cloud formations, as well as the dramatic peachy-pink sunsets. The sight of craggy ice cliffs contrasted with earlier delicate snow flurries helps to transport the audience to this far-flung frozen world.

If only as much effort had been spent on developing the characters, particularly the courageous Sacha, as on the stunning look of the Arctic expedition. It’s a cause for celebration when a strong female character is the cornerstone of an animated movie, and happily such heroines have been growing in number in the past few years. Showing young audiences viable female role models is not just laudable, but essential. That’s why it’s even more disappointing when Sacha is given only one defining characteristic: pluckiness.

At least the film is blessedly devoid of the anachronistic pop culture references, broad humor and saccharine messages that are so much a part of contemporary animated movies. But it also lacks the lively spark necessary for an adventure story. It could have used just a bit of the energetic spunk of “Mulan” for this action saga to truly involve us. (Maybe the English-language version missed a few nuances in translation; much of the time the voices sound more functional than expressive in delivering dialogue.)

While visuals as disparate as the grandeur of St. Petersburg architecture and the far-flung solitude of icy-blue glaciers are mesmerizing, the audience won’t be sufficiently emotionally invested in the one-dimensional characters to weather the journey.