On 'The Sea Beast' and Meeting Your Heroes, Warts and All

My daughter recently asked me if my parents used to be pirates. I don’t like to lie to my child, but I was so tickled by the concept that I didn’t discourage the notion. After all, my dad does have a Jolly Roger flying at his backyard tiki bar. 

Kids and adults alike love pirates, or at least the romanticized version of them that we see in popular culture. My daughter was thrilled when we took her to Pirate’s Cove in Josephine, Alabama, this summer and has been asking to return to “the pirate beach” ever since. We ate cheeseburgers, swam in the calm waters of Perdido Bay, and gazed at dolphins. Allegedly there was a man at the bar with an eye patch, but I never saw him myself. As I sipped a bushwhacker and looked out at this idyllic scene, I thought, if this is the pirate's life, then sign me up. But, despite what Jimmy Buffett may have led his legions of Parrot Heads to believe, being an actual pirate is much more “I am the captain now” and much less “Why is the rum gone?”

But who am I to burst a four-year-old’s bubble? She’s pretty cute when she hooks her finger and says, “Argh!”

My child loves stories that take place on the sea. Santiago of the Seas, Jake and the Never Land Pirates, and Moana are frequent requests in our house. After an esteemed colleague praised Netflix’s The Sea Beast, I decided that the film was a great candidate for family movie night. When I learned it was directed by the same guy who directed Moana and Big Hero 6, I was sold.

(Avast, me hearties, if ye wish to watch the film unspoiled!)

The protagonist, Maisie, lives in an orphanage for children whose parents were killed hunting sea monsters. She devours books that glamorize the adventures of those who hunt these beasts and eventually stows away on a hunting ship at her first opportunity. On her journey, Maisie learns that her books weren’t exactly accurate and that the real monsters aren’t the creatures in the sea. She also learns the hard lesson that her heroes are human, and that “You can be a hero and still be wrong.”

In my early American literature classes, I invite students to examine the work of several “American heroes” who have reached mythological status in our culture, such as Christopher Columbus and John Smith. Columbus initially describes the New World as a sort of Eden and posits himself as an explorer of this virgin land (that happened to be very much inhabited by a thriving civilization). By his fourth voyage, Columbus has fallen from grace, a beleaguered victim of his own sins, but that part of the story doesn’t fit into heroic narrative. John Smith shares his own swashbuckling tales in the third person in a style a student once described as “fan fiction about himself.” His account of meeting Pocahontas has become part of the American mythology, but scholars now realize that Pocahontas’s “rescue” of Smith was more than likely a ceremony in which her father was demonstrating his dominance over the English.

The Sea Beast is a good example of why people say that you should never meet your heroes. We see Maisie grappling with the discrepancy between her factionalized heroes and their flawed, messy, real-life counterparts. There’s an incredible moment in the film when Maisie realizes that her beloved books were essentially state-sponsored propaganda meant to justify sea creature genocide. I’d imagine this is similar to how people how grew up with Harry Potter felt upon first seeing J.K. Rowling’s Twitter account.

The Sea Beast, while intense at times, is a film that young people, nay, all of us need right now. There’s nothing wrong with occasional escapism in These Uncertain Times, but at some point, we need to see things as they are. Who is telling the story, and why? What are the implications of allowing our most cherished stories to go unquestioned?

In breaking free from the fantasy, Maisie is able to negotiate peace between the humans and the sea creatures. In questioning the myth, she ends the war that killed her parents and kept her in the lowest rung of society. The Sea Beast shows us that meeting your heroes, whether literally or figuratively, can hurt, but it can be a necessary and liberatory experience, too.