From the co-director of the 2010 Oscar nominee The Secret of Kells and co-founder of Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon comes the visually stunning Song of the Sea. Telling the story of ten-year-old Ben (David Rawle) and his magical six-year-old sister Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell), raised by their widowed father Conor (Brendan Gleeson) in a remote lighthouse on the wildly beautiful Irish coast, Tomm Moore’s film of ancient sea gods, faeries and ethereal Gaelic melodies has plenty to captivate both children and adults.
Having mysteriously lost their mother to the sea, and Saoirse being both her father’s favourite and never having spoken a word yet, Ben is torn between blaming her sister and protecting her. When a mysterious coat and a magical melody reveal Saoirse to be a selkie on her sixth birthday, we deep dive along with her into the ocean in what is the first of many visually entrancing, hand-painted sequences, taking us into a unique mix of contemporary Ireland, Irish mythology and Celtic folktale.
The film’s unrushed pace, potent symbolism and beautiful soundtrack are a welcome contrast to the chatty, fast-paced and action-laden trend in Hollywood animated films; instead, it seems to pay homage to approaches like Hayao Miyazaki’s classic work Spirited Away (2001), allowing the medium to really come alive.
Ben has grown up with his mother’s music, art and stories. Saoirse, born the night her mother disappeared into the sea, has inherited a shell flute that awakens the Faerie folk who are, contrary to any Disney-influenced expectations, little old men: the na Daoine Sidhe or “people of the mounds” in Celtic myth. It also alerts Macha the Owl Witch, a hag who literally bottles up people’s sorrows to allegedly grant them a more peaceful existence, but it turns them to stone in the process.
The adult viewer can already see the beginnings of quite a mature message, as well as moral shades of grey not generally found in Western animation. The witch is also a mother who simply wanted to take away her son, the Irish sea-god Mac Lir’s, grief – in parallel, Ben and Saoirse’s father Conor’s grief has had him neglecting his children, but the sharing of this burden is what unites the family in the end, with Ben – refreshingly relying on his wits and instincts – protecting and enabling Saoirse to ultimately save the day, fulfilling their mother’s dying wish.
The rescue journey story arc is familiar and formulaic, but it is a rare children’s film that tackles the philosophical question of pain as essential to being human. Moore’s mission to enliven and re-introduce Celtic myth to new audiences here is especially successful through Song of the Sea’s direct visualisation of metaphor through its organic, expressionistic, textured and beautifully ethereal backgrounds. With its characters and magical elements, it’s sure to delight younger audiences – but with its artistic craftsmanship, enchanting Gaelic ballads and thoughtful message, it makes a memorable watch for all.