In his feature debut, artist and director Rémi Chayé, with screenwriters Claire Paoletti and Patricia Valeix, brings us the animated story of a 19th century Russian girl, the 14 year-old Sacha, whose aristocratic parents’ hopes for her are that she live up to her status as a “real young lady” and appease the political status quo with a suitable marriage. Sacha, however, her childhood imagination set fire by the stories from her seafaring, explorer grandfather, hasn’t much use for the balls and gowns of fine ladies. Her heart is set on seeking out this same grandfather, declared to be lost at sea in an expedition to the North Pole, but who, she believes, is still waiting for rescue. The story follows her path after she runs away from parents and her St. Petersburg home, and, applying her wits, her navigational knowledge, and her courage in a societal context that doesn’t expect much self-sufficiency from any girl, much less an aristocratic one, she eventually finds a passage on a northbound ship, where Sacha and the crew face the dangerous cold, crushing ice floes, and their own fears and conflicts.
Sacha’s sturdy character is a delight in a film landscape where female characters rarely take center stage, and she recalls the vibrant characters my daughters and I love so much in the Ghibli studio oeuvre: Chihuro of Spirited Away; Satsuki of My Neighbor Totoro; Sheeta of Castle in the Sky; Kiki; Arrietty; Nausicaä. While there is a slight nod to a possible love interest in Sacha’s story, the primary focus has very little to do with her male peers and much more to do with the adventures her deep convictions and life passions bring her. Sacha grows up on her journey north, her understanding of the world, of herself and her capabilities deepening through what she encounters and through those she meets, boys, men, and women alike. In fact, Olga, a gruff and kindly innkeeper, is perhaps the character with whom Sacha has the deepest connection and from whom she learns the most.