Song of the Sea

| January 22, 2015

There are a few things that you can annually count on from the world of animation. Pixar will produce another Oscar-winner (or occasionally a Cars 2), and Dreamworks will put out Ice Age 73. However, every so often you get a work of animation that refutes the traditional paradigm. In 1993, it was The Nightmare Before Christmas. In 1995, it was theĀ  original Toy Story. In 1997, it was Princess Mononoke. And in 2015 it is Song of the Sea.

Although not perfect – particularly with its rather torpid narrative drive – Song of the Sea is a powerful work of imagination. An evocative, heartfelt ode to Irish folk tales, the film is easily one of the more distinctive animated films you’ll find this year, brimming with fantasy, adventure, yet still grounded in the recognizably human.

Song of the Sea opens on a family living on the Irish coast. Consisting of a young tot named Ben, his parents, and his small puppy, the family’s life is small in scope but boundless in love. The film’s animation – particularly in this opening sequence – is wild and audacious, possessing a surrealist quality that speaks to the magic of childhood. Carrying the fire of Hayao Myazaki, Irish animator Tomm Moore (who wrote and directed the film) doesn’t shy away from the dark realities of life however. It’s only a few minutes into the film when Ben’s idyllic life becomes marred by tragedy. His mother – who is pregnant with a daughter – suddenly disappears, plunging the family into gloom and despondency.

Years later, it is clear that this event still holds powerful influence over the family. Ben’s father Conor (voiced by the wonderful Brendan Gleeson) has been emotionally crippled by the loss of his wife. Ben has also been dramatically affected, often exuding a surly and combative air. He also seems to have little patience for his younger sister Saoirse, who at six years old has inexplicably still not spoken her first words.

One night Saoirse stumbles across a magical shell, which provides a link to her’s and Ben’s mother and reveals Saoirse’s true form. The young girl is actually a “selkie,” a mythological being who is both human and seal. This magical event proves to be the last straw for the already fragile Conor, who acquiesces to the children’s grandmother and allows them to be spirited away to a city further inland. For the incorrigible Ben however, this won’t wash. Quickly absconding from their grandmother’s dreary flat, Ben and Saoirse strike out for home. Along the way they begin to discover the power of their bond and Saoirse’s true destiny of helping to confront the witch Macha, who is hellbent on destroying the fairy world.

As mentioned, Song of the Sea follows memorably in the footsteps of Myazaki – in which children must travel precariously through a land divided by darkness and light, civilization and the natural world. The stunning animation beautifully articulates each, with both cityscapes and environments such as the Irish coast island where the family lives feeling equally vibrant. The overall effect of the animation is disarming, as it initially feel somewhat simplistic. It is only after the movie begins to pick up steam, and the viewer is thrown into scenes with enthralling line-work and audacious uses of color, that one begins to grasp the totality of the filmmakers’ vision.

Moore’s script – which focuses almost solely on the fluctuating dynamic between Ben and Saoirse – is also quite special, imbuing the relationship with a realistic feel. It’s a wonderful thing when a film captures a monumental character arc. In Song of the Sea the viewer witnesses that through Ben – who moves from a place of resentment to one of compassion and selflessness. This journey, which revolves around a family seeking catharsis, is tied intuitively to the notion of maintaining and respecting one’s cultural heritage. This is illustrated by having certain voice actors voice characters who are both part of the children’s ordinary life and the mythological world that they encounter on their journey. Gleeson, for example, not only plays the bereaved Conor, but the Great Seanchai – who Ben encounters in a cave and whose endless beard contains an equally endless amount of stories.

This thematic material is admirable and surprisingly complex for a film geared ostensibly towards younger demographics. However, despite the plot’s occasional slowness and obtuseness, it is also a testament to what great animation can achieve.

About the Author:

Adam Mohrbacher is a freelance film critic and writer who currently lives in Denver, CO.
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