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The Sea Creature.

The Sea Creature.
Photo: NETFLIX

The great mythical sea monsters depicted on medieval and Renaissance maps were not always literal. Most practical nautical charts and charts – the kind actually used by real seafarers on real ships – did not contain them; If you wanted sea monsters on your fancy card, you had to pay extra. There are tall tales of huge, terrifying creatures that lurked in distant waters, but most of the beasts seen on these documents were ornamental, mere symbols that the oceans held more secrets than we knew what to make of . Even then, they served primarily to inspire the imagination of the seated viewer.

In the new Netflix animation feature The Sea Creature, these giant monsters are of course very, very real. The film takes place at a time when the waves were ruled by ships fighting these unspeakable horrors from the deep. But there is a similar leap of imagination at play here. Unlike many modern day animated films, which draw inspiration from fantasy and present us with unique, imaginative designs, the world of The Sea Creature is rendered so realistically, so detailed and physicallythat it feels like a live-action adventure most of the time. It’s so captivating you could believe in sea monsters.

Even the human character designs feel just a few degrees from reality. That’s not to say that anyone would consider the broad-faced and anvil-cheeked Captain Crow (voiced by Jared Harris) — the seasoned hunter whose red-sailed ship, the Inevitable, is the most storied of all monster-hunting ships — a living, breathing actor. His facial features are stretched a bit too far for that. (And besides, that’s not a Final Fantasy: The Ghosts Within –style attempt to advance fake people on screen.) But Crow is a far cry from the angular, stylized faces and characters we see in animation these days. The same goes for his first mate and heir-to-be, the ample-chested harpooning ace Jacob Holland (Karl Urban). There’s something physically believable about these characters. They move like real people and they move through a world that feels stunningly tactile and palpable.

Borrow generously from Moby Dick and The Mysterious Island with something How to train your dragon made easy and Pirates of the Caribbean Embedded is the story of Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator), a young orphan who ends up stowed away on the Inevitable and stranded on an island with Jacob, where they face the Red Bluster, the most fearsome and elusive to the monsters of the world Era (and Captain Crow’s personal, uh, white whale). Of course, Red (as Maisie soon calls the giant creature) doesn’t turn out to be a monster at all, just a misunderstood giant who fought humans because humans fought him.

Now red is stylized and unreal. This is a family movie, after all, and while the other monsters in the movie are armored, clawed, tentacle-shaped nightmares, the adorable red looks more like a giant crimson seal, albeit with a wide-open mouth lined with round teeth. One look and you know it can’t be the murderous demon of these hunters’ imaginations. The story of the beast and humans accepting each other is certainly nothing new, but the film finds touching ways to develop this idea further. At one point, Maisie gets on Red’s back and sees the many harpoons sticking out of the creature. It’s a haunting image that director Chris Williams knows how to milk for maximum emotional impact.

Williams is a Disney veteran (he co-directed big hero 6 and Moiana), but he directs The Sea Creature with the panache of a live-action master. His camera (or, well, his “camera”) races among the bustling sailors of the Inevitable à la The boat. He skillfully builds both suspense and irony through background action as large waves upon distant waves herald the arrival of monsters, often featuring the creatures themselves in clever glimpses à la Jaw. And when we see the beasts in their entirety, they often have grandeur and majesty; When red rises from the sea, millions of individual water droplets pour away à la the more recent iterations of godzilla. (It’s somewhat unfortunate that the film is primarily a streaming release; it could have been great in Imax.) There’s certainly something familiar about it The Sea Creature, but it’s a welcome familiarity. This feels like the kind of rip-roaring, old-fashioned live-action nautical adventure that Hollywood often promises but rarely delivers.

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