Song of the Sea is the follow up to Tomm Moore’s previous animation The Mystery Of Kells, and it continues much of the traditions of that work, highly stylised, beautiful art, charming magical realism and pure, concentrated Irishness, to the extent that the credits are in gaelic.
The story concerns Ben, a boy living in a lighthouse on a stormswept island, and his little sister Saoirse, who is mute, but also is the last of the selkies, women in Irish and Scottish legends who transform from seals into people
The trouble starts when the children are removed from their grieving father by a well-meaning but wrong-headed grandmother and taken to the big city, away from the source of Saoirse’s magic coat, without which she grows progressively weaker, leading to the children running away back to the sea, along the way they encounter faeries and other creatures of gaelic folklore, existing between the cracks of the modern world.
Magic is central to the story, and pops up all over, with the children encountering the faeries living all across Ireland. The way this is presented is very appealing with a flavour of magical realism, as the children accept this new world they have discovered without question, and treat it as perfectly normal.
Right from the off I found this film utterly beautiful to look at, the art style is at once minimalist and complex, and highly stylised after animations of the 50’s and 60’s, and particularly reminiscent of Richard Williams unfinished opus The Thief and the Cobbler. However this style of 2D animation has been falling out of favour for a while now in favour of full on 3D CG bells and whistles, and this may work against it when it comes to finding an audience, as many people now seem ready to dismiss ‘old-fashioned’ animation out of hand. I think such a person is doing themselves a disservice, but there it is.This is not merely a series of pretty pictures though, the design of characters really brings out the emotions as well, particularly the father, voice by Brendan Gleeson, who’s broad shoulders seem weighed down by his grief for his selkie wife.
This is another strength of Song of the Sea, it has a deep emotional core on a par with anything Pixar have put out, centering on family ties, and how we deal with loss of a loved one, or seeing a loved one in pain. For all the magic bursting out of this film, it’s real clout comes from these totally relatable issues, with even powerful witches who are stealing the souls of all magical creatures in the world doing so out of love for their children.
This view on magic, and strong connection to the folklore of it’s country of origin should also be familiar to fans of Studio Ghibli, particularly those Miyazaki masterpieces Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, in this case though the identity of the home nation comes through with even greater strength, you’d be hard pressed to find a film more endearingly Irish than this.
For me Song of the Sea barely puts a foot wrong, the perfect combination of style and substance. The stylised animation may put off some viewers, but it really shouldn’t.
Do yourself a favour and get this in your eyes, but have tissues ready.