Song of the Sea is a spellbinding masterwork. An Irish film, nominated for the Oscar for best animation in 2014. Irish illustrator and filmmaker Tomm Moore has great success adapting Irish myth and folklore to animation. His previous film, The Secret Of Kells (2009), also got nominated for the Oscar, giving him an impeccable track record, and making his studio Cartoon Saloon a place to watch. Follow the magic lights.
The film is about a family that lives in a lighthouse in Ireland. There’s a single father with a son and a daughter. The little Saoirse can’t speak yet, although she is six years old. Her brother is frequently angry at her, and her father seems preoccupied. She feels drawn to the sea, and then literally is drawn into the sea and for a moment turns into a seal. She is a Selkie, a magical creature from Irish folklore that switches between human and seal form. Both children are taken to the city by grandma, but Saoirse’s magical influence draws other mythological creatures to her.
Song of the Sea has a unique and beautiful animation style that at once looks to sketchy and detailed. Broad strokes of rich colors mark the general shapes, while detailed line drawing sharpens it out from the inside. Soft smudges set the tone, as if the whole film is a living chalkboard. The stylish geometric shapes reminded me of the Disney movie Hercules (1997), but here it is really done to a much better effect. I was hesitant to see this film because I generally am no fan of unrealistically stylized hard angles, but this was beautiful. I wanted to keep watching simply to see more colors and shapes.
The film reminds one much more of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, such as Princess Mononoke (1997) and Ponyo (2008). Song of the Sea is in the same league of quality, and has the same quiet, thoughtful mood, and is full of a mysticism of nature where rocks and water are inhibited by spirits. It’s dreamlike, almost hypnotic at times with beautiful music underneath.
All the characters are nicely fleshed out. Her father is grieving inside, and her connection with her brother is strained. But she has to follow the lights. The magical journey ahead may not only save the other creatures, but will bring the family together. There is a void in the family, marking her brother with anger and her father with sadness, and leaving her unable to speak, because she hasn’t found her fate yet, her calling to the sea. But the song of the sea will set things right.
The film opens with a verse that really tells it all:
- Come away, oh human child
- To the waters and the wild
- With a fairy, hand in hand
- For the world’s more full of weeping
- than you can understand
It’s sad, but the film is very much about that too. Like Inside Out (2015) it gives a lesson that all emotions are necessary. The story speaks to anyone who has ever felt the magical or even spiritual attraction of the sea and nature. And to anyone who has known the ways of grief, how that is locked up inside like stone and sometimes released. Somehow, the mythology merges the two: nature and feeling. Stone for being stuck, and lost. Light and water for life. This is one of the most beautiful animated films that I have ever seen.