About the appeal of the sea and the peril it offers, the director and doom enthusiast Werner Herzog once asked, “What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark?” Here’s another question: What would summer be without a seafaring epic hitting our screens?
Not wanting anyone to consider that option, Netflix, on July 8, brings us The Sea Beast, a new animated feature in the grand tradition of ships, shanties, salt air and swimming villains. Hollywood tells us over and over again that it’s not safe to get into the water, and yet we jump in willingly.
“We keep returning to the sea as a setting for our stories, partially because inherently it means human beings are leaving where they’re comfortable, which is land, heading to a place where they’re more vulnerable,” says The Sea Beast director and co-writer Chris Williams. “It’s intrinsically interesting.”
Williams would know. A graduate of Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., he recently left the familiarity of Walt Disney Animation Studios (for which he co-directed 2008′s Bolt, 2014′s Big Hero 6 and 2016′s Moana) for Netflix Animation. Among his Disney mementos is an Oscar for Big Hero 6.
“I had a great experience at Disney and I left on really good terms,” says the 54-year-old Williams, who grew up in Waterloo, Ont. “I was hungry for a different kind of experience – almost for its own sake.”
Earlier this year, Netflix announced that it had lost subscribers for the first time in a decade. The streaming titan laid off some 150 workers because of slowing revenue growth. Williams still has a job despite the downturn, but one wonders if he regrets leaving Mickey Mouse land.
“There were peaks and valleys during my years at Disney, and there were great days and dark days,” says Williams. “You hear all this stuff about Netflix, but there’s a new animation building in Burbank, Calif., and I look around and what I see is a really thriving and exciting place to be. So, I don’t get caught up in all that stuff – I just do the work.”
The Sea Beast marks Williams’s solo directorial debut. Did he move to Netflix for more creative control?
“I wouldn’t say that I’m anyone who has any thirst for power,” Williams says. “I think it’s almost the opposite. One of my responsibilities is to make sure that everyone’s great ideas are getting up there on the screen.”
About those screens – naturally his Netflix movies will be shown on smaller ones than their Disney counterparts. Williams is okay with that. “Where all films end up living eventually is on the small screen anyway,”
Besides, he reasons, home theatre screens today “aren’t so small any more.”
The Sea Beast was quietly released in few theatres on June 24, in advance of its streaming premiere. Williams dove into the Melvillian story about revenge and a hunted deep-water creature with gusto, researching the intricacies of the wooden-ship era to achieve some level of historical authenticity. (As pointed out in the film, sailors weren’t all argh-sayers.)
Having sailors and pirates with peg legs and eye patches is a cliché – one which Williams purposely employed with The Sea Beast. “There is always this desire to create a new experience and to make a movie that’s never been done before,” Williams says. “But I certainly want this film to acknowledge some of the tropes we’ve seen from the past. They are cues that the film intends to sit along some of the great adventures that I grew up with.”
Williams counts such films as King Kong, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Lawrence of Arabia as his influences. Certainly, The Sea Beast has parallels to the film adaptations of Moby-Dick and Mutiny on the Bounty. What Williams’s film adds is a sci-fi element of something such as 2018′s The Meg, in which the creature’s existence alludes to an undiscovered world.
“We create this little safe place where we can survive,” Williams says. “But there’s just something about wondering what’s beyond the horizon.”
- The Sea Beast
- Directed by Chris Williams
- Written by Chris Williams, Nell Benjamin
- Starring (the voices of) Karl Urban, Zaris-Angel Hator, Jared Harris
- Classification N/A; 119 minutes
- Opens July 8 on Netflix
Directed, co-written and co-produced by Chris Williams, The Sea Beast is a thrill-loaded computer-animated seafaring epic about fantastical creatures who the menace the oceans in a world that resembles 16th-century Earth. Sea-savvy “hunters” led by the revenge-driven Captain Crow and his more reasonable heir apparent Jacob Holland glorify their occupations: “Every hunter dies a great death, because every hunter lives a great life.” It takes an orphan girl, though, to question the status quo and entrenched lore. Who are the heroes? Who are monsters? And who stands to gain by villainizing? Good questions, good messages, good film. – B.W.
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