Critics have, by and large, praised the film’s stunning worlds, expert camera work, and frenetic sea-set action sequences, although many have also expressed disappointment in the character and monster animation, not ideal for a film titled The Sea Beast. Those who saw the film in a cinema have celebrated the experience, one that far too few will be offered as Netflix only hosted a handful of theatrical screenings in major U.S. markets.
The film looks gorgeous on the big screen, with a focus on realistic backgrounds and textures that makes the naval scenes feel immersive, and a sense of scale and stakes that bring to mind Peter Weir’s masterpiece Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, not just during action scenes, but also in the downtime scenes where it’s just the crew working on the huge ship, setting the sails and tightening an incredible amount of ropes.
The Sea Beast kicks off as young Maisie stows away on the ship of legendary sea monster hunter Jacob Holland. The two end up sharing an epic journey into uncharted waters, changing both minds and the course of a kingdom’s history with what they discover. David Ehrlich at Indiewire applauded the film’s bird’s-eye view shots (as well as underwater cinematography) over similar shots from seafaring live-action films:
Leigh Monson’s review for the AV Club best sums up the critical consensus of the reviews published so far:
Netflix’s The Sea Beast sets sail on the streaming platform today, so we had a look at what critics are saying about the high-seas monster flick from Chris Williams (director, Big Hero 6; co-director, Moana).
“The Sea Beast” is Netflix original production with animation services provided by Sony Pictures Imageworks. The film is produced by Jed Schlanger and Chris Williams. Williams directs from a screenplay he co-wrote with Nell Benjamin. Voice casting includes Karl Urban, Zaris-Angel Hator, Jared Harris, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Dan Stevens, Kathy Burke, Doon Mackichan, and Jim Carter.
Williams choreographs intricate sea battles that balance cartoonish kineticism with semi-realistic physics, honoring the history of naval combat while elevating it to thrilling new heights (the aerial views and underwater wide shots are more striking than anything in The Pirates of the Caribbean). He and co-writer Nell Benjamin introduce the crew of the Inevitable — most notably a one-legged officer voiced by Secrets & Lies star Marianne Jean-Baptiste — with a degree of detail that makes the ship feel like a family. And while everything about the lead characters is too bland and plasticky to stand up against such a vividly realized world, secondary figures like Captain Crow are designed with clever flourishes and brought to life with unexpected moral ambiguity.
[T]he film is a gorgeous feat of animation, particularly in scenes of swashbuckling action. The choppy waves of the sea are gorgeously rendered, as Williams’ camera swings around with graceful urgency during nautical battles. The sheer physical inventiveness of the action set pieces delivers the kind of absorbing spectacle that causes one to inch toward the edge of their seat. In short, when The Sea Beast is in full-on action mode, it’s a blast…
The monsters themselves, though the size of Godzilla and packing Godzilla’s destructive power, are exaggeratedly cartoonish (comparisons to How to Train Your Dragon are inevitable). This might seem like a silly thing to say considering it is a cartoon, but it’s an interesting choice when everything else is so painstakingly rendered with realistic, tactile details. It’s not a criticism, exactly. But it does ensure that the monsters won’t immediately be the stuff of nightmares for the youngest viewers, which seems to be a fair trade off.
Our own Cole Delaney was one of the lucky few to catch the film’s big screen premiere at Annecy and got to speak with Williams for our podcast, available here:
Quick to applaud William’s lush world and well-shot action scenes, Lindsey Bahr at Associated Press did point out an incongruity in the aesthetic of the sea beasts in The Sea Beast:
Here’s a small reflection of what the critics are saying about The Sea Beast so far.
The film is sitting pretty at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatoemeter and a 75 score on Metacritic. That being said, there are relatively few reviews cached so far for a film with a profile as large as that of The Sea Beast. Expect those scores to change as the film goes wide today and more writers chime in.
Williams had a distinct advantage: He’s an animator. The accomplished cartoon helmer, who cut his teeth on Bolt and Big Hero 6, first took to the open waters with Moana — a dry run of sorts for some of the thrilling ideas he hoped to implement here. “Never work with kids or animals,” experienced film crews caution. “Stay on dry land, if at all possible.” When live-action filmmakers disobey those rules, the job winds up being far more difficult than they bargained for. (Waterworld, anyone?) But if making an animated movie, why not embrace those obstacles?