Song of the Sea directed by Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells) is unlike most of its contemporieis. With the closest comparison being his own prior work as well as Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, his film brim full of wonder and lessons of morality, all tinged with childlike glee in its artistry. It’s an absolutely stunning film, one of which that leaves images dancing around inside your head when you close your eyes which is befitting, considering it plays like a bedtime story of old.
The story is based largely on Ben, (David Rawle) a young Irish child who lives on the coast with his father (Brendan Gleeson) and sister Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell). Years after his mother has passed away Ben has forgotten his promise to her that he would protect his little sister at any cost and has instead turned into her main antagonist. Their father is kind-hearted but has never quite gotten over the loss of his love and their grandmother tries to keep them safe by taking them to her home in the city, away from the sea after one night she finds Saoirse washed ashore, asleep. From there, we learn that Saoirse is the last of the selkies, women who in Irish and Scottish decent have the ability to transform from seals into humans. Ben and his little sister must venture out into the overgrown countryside where magic both threatening and otherwise lie in order to return her to the sea and restore the magical balance by freeing the magical creatures trapped in the human world.
What I found so immediately striking is just how seeped in folklore Song of the Sea is. Like Studio Ghibli and GKids The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Song of the Sea is largely derivative of its native folklore. The story is familiar without sacrificing any of his close proximity legacy. The selkies is an Irish and Scottish legend, and yet, still remain universal in the films themes of familial bonds, love and sacrifice. As the opening credits roll, watercolors introduce the title card. It’s as if Moore has invited us all to witness this fairytale that we’ve all read before but never like this.
Hand-drawn animation is sadly becoming something of a lost art form. With this and Kaguya, there were two films in the past year that have embraced the dedication and intricacy that goes into such art. Initially, Song of the Sea appears to almost be simplistic, with the bare minimum being created to convey the emotions of our characters, but then the camera pulls back away from their faces and we get to see an immersive and stunning world. We’re never far from the sea in this film and it’s one of most lushly shot oceans, real or drawn, that I’ve ever seen. It breathes life onto the screen. The film includes witches who shift into owls, sobbing giants and pixies that turn to stone, allowing a medium known for its extensive imagination to flourish. I say this often so I fear sounding redundant but animation is an art form that deserves more credit and I can’t imagine anyone watching Moore’s latest and writing it off as nothing more than a children’s story.
However, what makes Song of the Sea so charming is its willful and childlike nature. Animation often tries to toe the line between adult themes and jokes with vibrant visuals to try and lure in a wider audience and typically it’s a gesture that puts me off more than draws me in. The best animated films utilize melancholy and visuals with such grace that I never question why I at 23 am enjoying the film as much as my 6-year-old sister is. Song of the Sea joins the ranks of Spirited Away and Finding Nemo for movies that are heartfelt and whimsical without needing to force cynicism to broaden the scope of their viewers. It’s a movie with themes that are far reaching but simple enough that children will understand them, take them in and hopefully learn from them.
With some fantastic voice work from Rawle (Moone Boy) and Gleeson (Calvary, Harry Potter) the film is emotional and exuberant and features atypical animation created in its oldest format. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes and the idea of the importance of family ring true in this film about shape shifting seals and creatures who keep their emotions in jars.