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In a way, animation is the purest form of filmmaking. You can tell whatever story you want. All that stands between the filmmaker and the film is what they can draw from themselves and put on the celluloid. So in the era of jaw-droppingly gorgeous CGI, the French production Long Way North is a throwback. And it’s wonderful.

The story follows Sasha (Christa Théret), a 15-year old girl from a family of Russian aristocrats. It’s 1882, a time of exploration, and Sasha’s grandfather Oloukine (Féodor Atkine) disappeared a year or two earlier on the way to the North Pole. The disastrous end of the expedition was an embarrassment for Russia’s ruling Tsar, who has offered a massive reward for anyone who can track down and return Oloukine’s lost vessel. Sasha’s father is bitter, eager to forget the whole matter, and thus remain in the good graces of the Tsar’s oleaginous science minister, who holds Oloukine in contempt.

This leaves Sasha as the sole champion of her grandfather’s legacy. The script, by Claire Paoletti, Patricia Valeix, and Fabrice de Costil, builds their relationship with a quick barrage of efficient storytelling strokes: Oloukine describing the planned expedition to a young and enraptured Sasha, then lifting her up so she can plant a flag on a ball of snow he’s just built; an evening quest by Sasha to the old man’s shuttered study in search of some earrings he once gave her; and a mischievous dash through a museum by Sasha and her friend.

During the trip for the jewelry, Sasha stumbles upon Oloukline’s old notes, which reveal he attempted a different route than was widely assumed — hence the inability of any search parties to find the vessel. The scandal infuriates her father, so Sasha takes matters into her own hands, running off to track down her grandfather’s final days herself.

Beyond that, I don’t want to reveal too much of what transpires. Suffice to say that Long Way North reprises the long tradition of stories where a character’s seemingly outwardly-directed quest becomes a journey of self-discovery. The film executes that well-trod ground with grace and subtlety. Sasha is a deeply privileged young woman, but not a cruel or vain one — she’s simply unfamiliar with the workings of the world outside her rarified circles. Sasha doesn’t even realize she should bring money for her journey, which quickly brings her down a few pegs: she’s forced to ride in the storage cars on trains and work in the kitchen of seaside inn for a month.

The relationships Sasha develops along the way are quietly humanistic. Her father, distant and harsh when social graces are at the forefront of his mind, is overwhelmed by grief as soon as his daughter vanishes, and starts a search for her. Meanwhile, the owner of the inn Nadya (Audrey Sablé) figures out Sasha’s identity early on. But she decides not to turn Sasha over to the authorities, and instead gives her safe harbor to regroup when plans go awry. Compassionate from the outset, Nadya eventually comes to respect Sasha as well, as the mundane tasks of cleaning dishes, skinning potatoes, and dealing with drunken customers reveals both a decency and an iron will in the young woman.

Katch (Thomas Sagols) is a young scamp on an ice clipper who befriends Sasha. The movie acknowledges the possibility of romantic attraction between the two teenagers without the obligation to waste time on this idea. Larson (Rémi Caillebot) is the first mate on the boat who initially scams Sasha, and finally comes to regret his actions. Larson’s older brother Lund (Loïc Houdré) is the captain, who despairs of his younger sibling ever living up to his responsibilities. The gruff Lund is initially won over by the reward, but he too eventually comes to respect Sasha’s grit and intelligence.

So a journey into the frozen wastes of the north does eventually happen, though the plot zig zags in realistic-yet-unexpected ways to get us there. And once Sasha and her cohorts are off, the twists the journey takes are darker and more disastrous than I expected from such a gentle animation. With a young girl surrounded by hard-bitten men, it’s hard to set aside fears of sexual violence. Long Way North certainly doesn’t go there, but it’s smart enough to know its audience fears the way human beings can turn on one another in a high-pressure environment. The tension and pathos are visceral as the expedition’s miniature human community breaks down. The film does not find its humanism on the cheap.

The animation is straightforward and low-tech, built around simple shapes and broad pastel colors. Long Way North derives its visual oomph from impressionism rather than detail, but remains wonderfully expressive: the animators draw enormous emotion out Sasha’s big green eyes, or the set of Lund’s gritted teeth. If you’ve ever seen the cartoon Samurai Jack, there’s a similarity there. Director Rémi Chaya relies on the contrast between stillness and motion among the shapes on screen, refusing to push the animation style beyond what it can handle in terms of portraying movement. At the same time, he insists on treating his shots with the same respect one would accord moments from Lawrence of Arabia. He doesn’t shy away from grand vistas and long takes, trusting that his audience will find a beauty in the imagery.

So the animation is very much like the storytelling: simple, but buoyed by a confidence that the old ways are old because they work, and ready to believe in the power of what it’s trying to communicate. All of this lends Long Way North a quiet grandeur.

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