Los Angeles Times
Learning that the real ‘Beast’ is propaganda
A girl discovers truth about stories she loves in Chris Williams’ first Netflix animated film.
Maisie Bramble is introduced early in “The Sea Beast” as a bit of a rule breaker.
Obsessed with the seafaring hunters who traverse oceans tracking and killing giant sea monsters, Maisie (voiced by Zaris-Angel Hator) is first shown regaling her fellow orphans with stories about these warriors’ heroics by candlelight before the children are caught breaking curfew. It’s also hinted that she routinely breaks out of the children’s home.
Maisie “is just a force of nature,” said “The Sea Beast” director Chris Williams during a recent phone call. She’s “a character that is absolutely determined to go after what she wants. And if she sees an obstacle, she’ll go through it, around it, under it, but she will achieve what she’s after.”
A sweeping animated action adventure, “The Sea Beast,” now streaming on Netflix, is set in a world where terrifying sea monsters terrorizing ships and coastal towns have led to the rise of maritime hunters that protect the defenseless populace. Maisie’s goal is to join the crew of a hunting ship in order to “live a great life” fighting these giant sea beasts, much like her parents did before they died.
Partly inspired by old nautical maps that feature illustrations of monsters, “The Sea Beast” channels the spirit of the types of films that Williams loved most as a kid. The Academy Awardwinning director of “Big Hero 6” cites “King Kong,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and stop-motion innovator Ray Harryhausen’s “Sinbad” films and “Clash of the Titans” as among the works that sparked his affinity for fantastic adventure stories and desire to be a filmmaker.
“I love the movies where characters leave the known world and adventure into the unknown,” said Williams, who also co-wrote “The Sea Beast” screenplay with Nell Benjamin. “Something about the uncharted islands; the mysteries that lay beyond the horizon. That was always very compelling to me.”
In some ways, “The Sea Beast” was also an adventure into the unknown for Williams (beyond the fact that production took place during a pandemic). The Netflix film is the veteran filmmaker’s first feature outside of Walt Disney Animation, where he worked for 25 years. Besides 2014’s “Big Hero 6,” Williams’ most notable Disney credits include directing “Bolt” (2008) and serving as a co-director on “Moana” (2016).
While “The Sea Beast” may boast more swashbuckling action sequences than any of his previous films — as well as a roster of both vicious and adorable sea creatures — it’s still a story with plenty of heart. Central to the film is the relationship between young Maisie and Jacob Holland (Karl Urban), a decorated hunter whose adventures Maisie has read about in her books.
Jacob and the crew of the hunting ship Inevitable, led by the legendary Captain Crow (Jared Harris), are among Maisie’s idols. Williams describes Jacob as “the prototypical action hero” — he’s capable, courageous, respected by his fellow hunters and has a good heart. And having grown up on a hunting ship, Jacob knows firsthand that life out on the sea is not really suitable for most children.
But beyond the potential excitement and accolades associated with the job, Maisie’s fixation on hunters and their history is also a connection to her parents’ legacy. So she’s not going to be easily deterred.
“When [Maisie] determines that Jacob is not going to be helpful, and is in fact an obstacle … she knocks Jacob back on his heels, which he is not accustomed to,” said Williams while explaining Maisie as the perfect foil for a character like Jacob.
Beyond the visual spectacles of massive ships, crews battling giant monsters and action sequences both above and underwater, “The Sea Beast” engages with broader themes about heroism and history as Maisie, being younger and more open-minded than her hunter role models, starts to question everything she thought she knew about the war between humans and sea monsters.
These stories Maisie has pored over are “very powerful tools of propaganda” that present just one point of view about what has been happening out in the ocean. It’s only after Maisie goes out to sea and discovers that reality is much more complicated that she is able to reconsider the stories that inspired her.
Maisie is “someone who is still fixated on the idea of going after what she thinks is right, but her sense of right and wrong evolves dramatically over the course of the story,” said Williams, who explained part of the reason she is able to adapt her thinking is because she is still young. Captain Crow and Jacob are more set in their ideology.
“It takes a lot for someone, once they’ve been indoctrinated, to deprogram them, and that’s a lot of what the story is about,” said Williams. “We’re depicting this idea that the younger you are, the more nimble you tend to be and the less fixed you are in your worldview.”
The theme feels particularly timely as right-wing politicians and conservative activists in numerous states have increased their efforts to ban children’s access to certain library books and bar certain subjects and history from being taught in school.
“It’s critical who’s in control of the stories and who gets to say what the truth is in our history,” said Williams, who was saddened by seeing these themes become more relevant while “The Sea Beast” was in production.
Although the film is “ultimately meant to be a very fun action adventure spectacle,” added Williams, “as an artist, you always hope in some small way that you can give people a framework for thinking about these [larger themes]. Your humble hope is that you can make some difference in the world.”