Inspired by Celtic folklore tales, Oscar-nominated animation feature film “Song of the Sea” tells a simple fantasy tale with its lovely style to be appreciated and admired. While it may be a little too slow for young audiences who are mostly accustomed to those hyperkinetic digital animation feature films, this charming Irish animation movie will appeal to adult audiences with its own gorgeous scenes based on its hand-drawn animation. Even when the story loses its grip to some degrees around its middle part, the movie keeps serving us with enchanting moments to behold, and this is an enjoyable visual experience to savor on the whole.
At the beginning, we are introduced to a young boy named Ben (voiced by David Ralwe) and his family. They live alone in a lighthouse island near some beach town, but they are happy with each other in their lighthouse house while expecting a new family member to come. Ben’s pregnant mother Bronach (voiced by Lisa Hanigan) is near her delivery, and, as a good son very close to his mom, Ben promises that he will be a good brother to his baby sister.
However, a sad thing happens not long after that. Bronach is gone from her son when she is about to give a birth to her daughter, and she never comes back. Ben later hears from his father Conor (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) that his mother was dead during the birth of his sister Saoirse (voiced by Lucy O’Connell), and that hurts him a lot while his father is devastated by the loss of his wife.
Several years have passed. We see Ben, who has grown up more, having a fun time with his big sheepdog Cù (it means dog in Gaelic). Saoirse, who has never uttered any single word since her birth, grows up to be a cute little girl, and she sticks around her brother even when he is rather harsh and uncaring to his mute sister. Although he has not yet fully recovered from his grief, Conor is still a good father to his kids, and he tries as much as he can for providing a nice, comfortable environment for them.
Because Saoirse’s birthday is coming, Conor’s mother comes from the city to visit her son and grandchildren. While glad to see Ben and Saorise, Granny (voiced by Fionnula Flanagan) is not so pleased to see that her son remains to be a grieving widower as before, and she thinks it is the best for her grandchildren to live in the city along with her. Conor does not want that much, but he comes to change his mind after Saoirse happens to discover a mysterious coat hidden in a chest during one night. When she wears it and then goes out to the sea by herself, she is transformed into a white baby seal, and we get one of the best scenes in the film as she swims around various underwater sights along with other seals.
Being angry about his father’s decision and feeling suffocated in his grandmother’s house, Ben eventually decides to go back to his home for himself, and then he and Saoirse come across a trio of old fairies on their way back home. It turns out that the fairy tales his mother used to tell him are actually real, and Ben learns that his mother was a mythological entity called Selkie. As her daughter, Saoirse is also a Selkie (does it require two X Chromosomes, I wonder?), and she should return to the sea with her coat as soon as possible. She must sing a song Ben learned from his mother, and that will liberate many spirits stuck around the country and sending them back to their realm before it is too late for them – and her.
The journey for helping her and other spirits will not be an easy task for Ben, for there is a big opposing force standing on his way. Macha (voiced by Fionnula Flanagan), an old but powerful witch who is feared by a few remaining spirits not captured by her yet, goes after Saoirse for finishing a job she has been doing for many years, and the sequence where Ben encounters Macha becomes creepier as it reveals how chillingly she pushes her good intention like Nurse Ratched. She believes with no doubt that she is doing a right thing for everyone including her, and her seemingly gentle appearance is both disturbing and pitiful as you think more about the tragedy and horror behind it.
“Song of the Sea” is the second work of the director/co-writer Tomm Moore, who previously made “The Secret of Kells” (2009) and also got Oscar-nominated for that impressive debut. While the animation relatively looks more smooth and fluid here in “Song of the Sea”, Moore continues that distinctive hand-drawn animation style shown in his previous work. Many scenes in the film feel like storybook illustrations, and the characters look broad and simple with round/angular lines as their two-dimensional aspects are frequently accentuated in movements. The backgrounds are often purposefully drawn without perspective like those ancient murals or kids’ paintings; I like how the waves and the other kinds of flows are dynamically expressed with bold lines on the screen, and the watercolor depiction of the blurry clouds in the sky particularly reminds me of those impressionistic paintings by J.W.M. Turner.
I must point out that its story is predictable from the start as a typical family drama about loss, grief, and acceptance. I felt impatient while noticing a number of notable narrative hiccups, but, fortunately, such flaws like them do not seriously damage the power of the many fabulous moments in the film such as the scene involving the literally hairy lair of the Great Seanachaí (voiced by John Kenny), a lonely entity who is ironically quite forgetful in contrast to his inherent job of preserving many past memories. The actors providing voice works are suitably cast in their respective roles, and young actor David Rawle holds his own place well as supported by veteran actors including Brendan Gleeson, who previously collaborated with Moore in “The Secret of Kells”.
I am not sure whether “Song of the Sea” is better than “The Secret of Kells”, but that is just my small reservation. I observed its bountiful and colorful details with pleasure, and it was also nice to see the small comparison between sketches and final products during the end credits. If you are looking for something different from usual animation films, you will likely enjoy it as much as me. In case of its main targets, well, I hope they will have a chance to encounter it to learn how animation films can be more interesting and imaginative.