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Sasha is the protagonist of Long Way North. Sasha is a princess. And Sasha has no love interest aside from the suggested admiration of a boy who’s among the seamen the 15-year-old leads to the North Pole.
This may not be remarkable if Long Way North, a co-production from France and Denmark, weren’t an animated film. But consider what U.S. audiences are accustomed to: It took Pixar until 2012 to center one of its movies on a female, Merida from Brave. And after decades of damsels in distress, Merida is the only Disney princess who didn’t swoon over some dude.
Rémi Chayé’s economical 81-minute film, penned by three scripters, may not have the emotional and visual depth of a Pixar gem, but it’s delightful nonetheless—that it also passes the Bechdel test is a bonus. Its hand-drawn simplicity gives respite to CG-weary eyes, sacrificing no magic with its blocks of color or, in the most impressive scenes, blustery washes of white that represent the brutal conditions of the arctic. The film is easy on the brain, too, with no rat-tat-tat blasts of jokes to appease parents, only occasional low-key humor meant to elicit smiles instead of guffaws.
Long Way North takes place in 1882 Russia. Sasha (Chloe Dunn in the dubbed English version) is the aristocratic granddaughter of an explorer, who in the opening scene is setting sail with majestic ceremony to find the North Pole. He’d always regaled young Sasha with tales of his adventures and details of his ultimate goal, and even though he ended up lost at sea, Sasha was proud of his bravery, which St. Petersburg honored by naming a library after him. His ship was never found.
But when the teenage Sasha is getting ready for her first ball and digs around a storage room for earrings her grandfather had given her, she finds notes he’d left behind that offer clues about where his ship may be. She also discovers that society actually regards him as somewhat of a disgrace, for reasons not clearly explained. So when her father admonishes her after the ball for speaking impudently to a prince who refuses to order a search party, Sasha ditches her privileged life to go search herself.
Like Merida, Sasha is written as a strong female role model. She shows no fear as she tirelessly tries to find someone to help her, and when she’s taken advantage of by a man claiming to be the captain of a ship, the normally pampered princess works—albeit thanks to the benevolence of a brusque female pub owner—in exchange for room and board until that ship returns. Sasha doesn’t flinch while confronting that group of hardened seafarers and manages to persuade them to head to the North Pole, taking her along and treating her like one of the boys.
Long Way North turns into a thriller at sea, with the ship’s rough moments feeling as realistically frightening as any moment of The Perfect Storm. The ferociousness of the arctic—whether whiteouts, avalanches, or polar bears—is viscerally depicted and makes Sasha all the more sympathetic when she does break down in tears, with the whipping elements nearly hiding her from view. She’s an altogether different iteration of Snow White, the kind of heroine that animation could use more of.
Long Way North opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up.