The movie follows Sacha (Christa Theret), daughter of a Russian aristocrat. Although she has no unusual problems with her parents, she was especially close with her grandfather Oloukine (Feodor Atkine), a bold adventurer who once found the Northwest Passage. On his most recent journey, an expedition to plant the Russian flag at the North Pole, Oloukine went missing, and even a million-ruble reward for the discovery of his ship by the tsar has turned up nothing. The disappearance is weighing negatively on Sacha's family's reputation, and her father, concerned with his image, is willing to make concessions with the arrogant Prince Tomsky (Cyrille Monge) in order to protect his political standing. Sacha is furious at the possibility that her grandfather's legacy is at stake, but stumbles upon a way to fix it: a detail in his notes that suggests he took a different route to the Pole, and that searches have been conducted in the wrong place. With no money and no plan, Sacha runs away from home in the hopes she'll find a ship willing to investigate Oloukine's disappearance one last time.
To reiterate: Long Way North is an especially gorgeous film. Chaye finds the right balance between his stylized characters and their more realistic settings, which are rife with little details that help place the characters more completely in the universe, such as the various riggings on the boat Sacha eventually makes her way onto, or simply in the accurate observation of how human beings move and speak. The look of the film simultaneously conveys a certain flatness, like layers of paper placed on top of one another, while also capturing the feel of depth and space. There isn't anything particularly flashy about the style, and the viewer will adjust to it fairly quickly, but it's unique enough to carry the viewer all the way through all on its own.
It's a good thing, too, as those who have seen any other stories about young girls navigating the choppy seas between independence and harsh reality (a territory which Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki basically owns) will find little else to engage them. Sacha's dramatic journey feels pretty paint-by-numbers, from being too trusting, being too naive, being too determined, struggling through true darkness, and being just determined enough. She's assisted along the way by an equally familiar set of characters, including the wise, kindly barkeep Olga (Vivienne Vermes) who gives Sacha just enough of a hand to prevent her journey from ending before it begins, or the less-kindly captain Lund (Loic Houdre) who is realistic about the odds they will find Oloukine and does not like Sacha's presence on his ship. There's a young kid her age, Katch (Thomas Sagols), with whom she shares what feels like a faint flirtation, and another shipmate who serves as the closest thing to an antagonist aside from Mother Nature.
It feels like a fitting summary of Long Way North's problems to say there's not much more to dive into aside from the visual appearance of the film and its overly familiar story. Both aspects of the film are more or less straightforward, never miraculously improving or thoroughly collapsing. Anyone who watches it and finds it beautiful but minimally engaging within the first ten minutes (such as myself) is not likely to feel much differently by the end. It is interesting to note that the film's story was developed by two women but ultimately written by a man. Long Way North preaches about the vitality of adventure and attempts to tell a story about a young woman's coming-of-age, but neither one is truly felt.
The Video and Audio
The most hefty of the supplements is a Behind-the-Scenes Featurette (38:56), which goes through the entire journey of production. Presented in French with burned-in subtitles, this documentary includes a number of interesting peeks behind the curtain, including a deleted sequence involving a whale, the story of how the script was developed, and footage of the animators visiting a boat in a harbor to start learning how certain details are drawn. This is accompanied by a Interview with Remi Chaye and Henri Magalon (29:53), which is in English, and again looks at the development of the project. Predictably, there is some overlap between the two supplements.
The disc rounds out with some still galleries of character design (4:09) and concept art (2:28), and animatics (3:28). No theatrical trailer for Long Way North is included.