If there is one thing that the current hoopla surrounding Disney’s upcoming live action “Mulan” proves, it’s the evolving tastes of today’s audiences. Amid the anti-whitewashing protests, many were also concerned about the perceived prominence of the romance element. Indeed, audiences are no longer satisfied with the “princess needs Prince Charming for her happily ever after” story. Instead they crave stronger, more independent female characters from their animated films. One such example is the protagonist of Rémi Chayé’s debut feature “Long Way North,” who desires adventure rather than romance.
That protagonist is Sacha, a young aristocrat living in 19th century Russia. On the brink of adulthood, her parents want nothing more than to see her married to a nice prince. But Sacha’s mind is preoccupied with other concerns. After a daring – and infamously expensive – Arctic expedition, her beloved grandfather Oloukine has gone missing. Unable to accept the general assumption of his demise, she wants to go looking for him, thereby fulfilling her lifelong dream to follow in his footsteps. And so, on the night of her debutante ball, she hatches a plan to embark on a dangerous solo mission to the Great North to rescue Oloukine and restore her family’s honor.
Indeed, Sacha barely finishes a waltz with her potential suitor before she sets out on her solo adventure. With no sidekick in tow, she calls on her street smarts to find her way on to a ship bound for her destination. Steeped in mystery and danger, Sacha’s subsequent journey makes for a compelling adventure. And despite the simplicity of the hand-drawn animation, the film conveys an epic scope.
Facing harsh terrain and pompous men who constantly ridicule and underestimate her, Sacha’s formative voyage is arduous and uncertain. Nevertheless, the tenacious 14-year-old always manages to feel like the smartest person in the room and impressively assimilates into her new environment. The character thus emerges as a fantastic role model, not only for the intelligence and tenacity she displays, but also the way she dismisses class boundaries. As she conducts menial chores to maintain her keep, one incredulous young man even confesses to her, “I thought you’d be better at embroidery than peeling potatoes.”
Admittedly, the overall storytelling takes a more traditional approach than our headstrong heroine. But with the aid of a lovely score that tugs at the heartstrings, it builds to an elegantly moving coda. “Long Way North” may not go down as a modern classic, but its sophisticated style and excitingly feminist approach should appeal to viewers of all ages.
“Long Way North” is now playing in select theaters.