Had I caught Tomm Moore’s brilliant Song of the Sea when it was first released, it likely would have cracked my top ten films of the year. It stands alongside How to Train Your Dragon 2 as the most accomplished animated feature of last year, a triumph of elegant, emotional storytelling and gorgeous, CGI-enhanced hand-drawn imagery.
Sea, along with his slighter previous feature The Secret of Kells, mark Moore as a prodigious talent in this field of cinema. Both movies were deservedly nominated for the best animated feature Oscar, and though they lost out to bigger budget studio fare, they remind me in the best possible way of Ireland’s answer to the fantasy realms envisioned by Hayao Miyazaki.
There is a traditional quality to the storytelling that feels timeless: both Moore and Miyazaki emphasize cultural specificity over easily accessible humor or characterization, and their focus on environmental causes and deeply felt familial relations add another layer of sophistication. They are, perhaps, less child-friendly as a result; though there were many young kids in the theater when I finally saw Song of the Sea, I couldn’t help but feel that the more emotionally-stirring moments (and there are many) may have been lost on an audience focused more on visual splendor, something the film delivers in spades.
I suppose, then, that Song of the Sea is sort-of perfect as an animated feature which reads on multiple levels: as a brother-sister adventure tale, as a gorgeous and wondrous bedtime story, both nightmarish and dreamy, and as a story about mourning and what it takes for a child to grow into a young adult.
The story begins as Bronach and Conor, parents to young Ben, are on the verge of welcoming another child. They live on an island off the mainland coast, inside a lighthouse. As Bronach tells Ben a fantastical bedtime story about “the song of the sea”—also a gorgeous refrain of music that plays throughout the film—she goes into labor and rushes from the room, turning back just in time to apologize to her son before disappearing into the night. Conor, a big lug of a man, follows after and returns, melancholy, with Ben’s baby sister, Saoirse, in his arms.
We jump forward in time and Ben, now about 11 or 12, cannot forgive Saoirse for making his mother go away—whether she is dead or not is not revealed until much later in the film. Saoirse is mute, which frustrates Ben even more, and no one knows why. One night, she is awakened by sparkles floating in the air before her; she follows them into the night and down to the beach. There, a pack of seals await her and she tentatively swims out to them before diving down and becoming one of the sea-dwellers herself. It turns out that Saoirse, and possibly her mother before her, are selkies, an ancient breed of women who are half human and half seal (they will be familiar to anyone who loved 1994’s Secret of Roan Inish, as I did).
As soon as Saoirse discovers her secret, the children’s grandmother arrives to take them off their clearly depressed father’s hands for a while. Granny, fearing for the kids’ well-being, moves them to the city to live with her, and immediately Saoirse begins to weaken, growing paler and eventually finding that her hair is changing from black to white. The rest of the film follows Ben, Saoirse, their sheep dog, and various mystical creatures as Saoirse attempts to return to the sea.
I won’t give anything else away, but the film plays out as a tense rescue mission, punctuated by some moments of absurdist humor and others of genuine awe. A witch possessing giant wings and a fearsome pack of owls is particularly disturbing—and bears a striking resemblance to Spirited Away‘s Yubaba—while a gorgeous scene involving the lifting of dead spirits at sunrise will take your breath away.
The animation throughout is simply a triumph: the images have a hand-drawn, home-spun feel to them, but the swirling colors and shapes move smoothly thanks to CGI enhancement. The stark differentiation between Granny’s dull, brown-gray urbane existence and the lush blues, greens, and yellows of the countryside is particularly enthralling, as are the underwater passages, with the cute seals possessing inviting smiles and pleasantly rotund bodies.
The score, by Bruno Calais, is similarly impactful, spinning out like the ever-expanding fantasy world on display, with a pleasant (and refreshingly muted) folk quality. On the whole, in fact, Song of the Sea possesses a simplistic, dreamy tone, and the filmmakers never seem to strain for a joke or force a response. If you react strongly to a particular moment in the film, it is because of the expert storytelling and subtle craft, another marked difference from many typical animated films and their constant string of jokes and/or action.
At its heart, though, Song of the Sea is telling a beautiful story about loss and familial ties. Though she hardly appears, mother Bronach’s ill-timed departure rings throughout the film, and much of the movie has to do with the difficult vulnerability that comes from expressing the emotions we’ve kept bottled up inside. Ben is unceasingly nasty to Saoirse, and only by finally living up to his duties as an older brother (to protect, advise, and love) can he learn to forgive her for their mother’s absence. For her part, Saoirse has lived her life in fear, unaware of who she is and what she can become; by unlocking her secrets, she learns to love herself and her family more fully. And though he is never the film’s focus, Conor’s loss at the outset is massive; the last thing he wants is to lose his children, too, and their developing bond helps him to realize just how much he needs them in his life.
The film’s rapturous final act—involving the lifting of spirits I mentioned before—is one of the finest I’ve seen in some time. You’ll fear for these characters as though they are real, and that’s because you may find you have a great deal in common with their own fears, their loss, and their genuine love for one another. Very rarely do animated films set within their own fantastical realms strike this chord of reality, but as I came to the end of Song of the Sea, I could not help shedding a tear: for these characters, for my own experiences, and for the rare but achievable perfection of the animated genre.
Go out of your way to see this one, folks. You will not be disappointed.
And be sure and check out the trailer for the movie below; it captures the quiet, moody spirit of this film, and far more of its physical beauty than my lame screenshots can deliver!