Song of the Sea (2014)
Dir: Tomm Moore
Refreshingly old-fashioned and winningly original, Song of the Sea proves that traditional animation done well still has a rightful place amidst flashier (and often CGI and 3D) competition. Director and co-writer Tomm Moore guides the tale with an auteur’s hand (though animation is a truly collaborative medium), building off the acclaim afforded to his nominated-out-of-nowhere 2009 hit The Secret of Kells while creating a tale told clearly and with care, keeping its focus tight while charming with its anachronistic style.
Gaelic folklore is mined for subject matter in this Ireland-set story that centres around the mythological Selkie – a creature that lives as a seal in the sea but as a human on land. In the time-honoured tradition of such heartfelt tearjerkers as Bambi and The Land Before Time, the opening scene depicts the tragedy of young Ben (David Rawle) losing his mother on the same night that she gives birth to his sister Saiorse. Their widowed father Conor (Brendan Gleeson) is left to raise them alone in his island lighthouse, with occasional visits from their disapproving Grannie (Fionnula Flanagan) who thinks the kids would flourish in the big city, away from the natural world.
Hints of a larger, unseen world are glimpsed in Ben’s recollections of his mother’s fanciful stories, often told to his sister Saiorse who, despite turning 6-years-old, has yet to utter a word. Glowing orbs follow Saiorse at night and guide her towards an unknown purpose, while ancient forces stir in anticipation of a shift in their world. It’s obvious Saiorse is different and that becomes plainly clear when she wanders into the sea after finding her mother’s white coat, taking the form of a frolicking seal before being washed ashore again in human form.
From that inciting incident Ben and Saiorse’s adventure kicks off, leading them through a menagerie of well-realized locales from their stalwart lighthouse home to the bustling city, through underground dwarf lairs and foreboding forests, leading to a witch’s den in the stirring climax. Ben is the plucky lead and audience surrogate, an older brother who resents his younger sister’s presence and just wants to play with his best friend Cú the dog. The setup of an unwanted younger sibling, fantastical creatures, and an antagonist who may ultimately be seeking to grant the hero’s wishes makes Song of the Sea a spiritual cousin of sorts to the Jim Henson cult classic Labyrinth. And while Song of the Sea‘s creature designs are more winsome than grotesque (and there’s nothing as egregiously eye-catching as David Bowie’s bulge to be found here) there does seem to be an odd through line between the two in their central focus on sibling relationships and the power of myth and stories as affecting allegories for emotional pain and growth.
The animation is hand-drawn, or at least made to look so, featuring idiosyncratic character designs and lush, evocative settings. The cast, while small, gives life to characters whose traits are shown through physicality as well.Conor’s slumped shoulders and sullen movements mark him as a broken man, unable to shake off his loss, while Ben is a typically hyperactive young boy, both protective towards and dismissive of his sister Saiorse. And Saiorse the Selkie has to convey much without ever saying a word, in a plot that rests upon her finding her voice in order to free the creatures of myth and grant them passage towards a Valhalla of sorts (strands of Scandinavian lore seem woven in amidst the Irish references).
Music plays a large role as well, although the film thankfully doesn’t devolve into grating song-and-dance numbers as so many Disney movies do. In fact, Song of the Sea seems like an anti-Disney movie in many ways, shaking off contemporary references and movie-star voice acting to instead tell a heartfelt tale that’s lyrical and simple, in the best sense of the word. It’s free of clutter and thus able to focus on emotional truth, leading to an ending that should have viewers rapt. It may not be the first choice for audiences grown used to the mile-a-minute, four-quadrant, over-produced CGI-fests that have become the norm at the multiplexes, but if you can get on Song of the Sea‘s wavelength you’ll find there’s much to enjoy in this stunningly realized, soul-stirring gem.