There are many words that could be used to describe Song of the Sea – sweet, simplistic, imaginative, cute. All these do a disservice to the film, which is an enchanting, emotional and visually stunning adventure.
The story follow Ben and Saoirse, a young brother and sister who are shipped off to their Grandmother’s strict and tiny house in city, leaving behind their lighthouse keeper father and the small rocky island they were both born on. The loud and bolshy Ben is determined to get back home to his English Sheepdog and best friend Cu, while the mute Saoirse is pulled home by a much greater force – her recently discovered ability to become a seal in the ocean. The two are polar opposites, but they set off together on the journey home, only to find mysterious Faerie world has other plans for them.
Animation is a complex and often overlooked medium – usually seen as a children’s genre rather than a form of its own. But animation has a unique ability to unite audiences through visual storytelling, not discriminating by age or gender, probably due to its long and careful production process. Tomm Moore’s Song has a nostalgic quality in its hand-drawn style, as well as its plucky young protagonists, but is also entirely comfortable with its animated nature. Unlike a lot of 3D animated films, which strive for higher levels of realism and technical innovation, Song of the Sea plays with its own 2D nature, presenting layered backgrounds that sit on screen almost like paper collages. The textures of the film never try to be minutely rendered, instead relying on swirls and lines and deep, rich colours. There isn’t a single shot in the film that wouldn’t make for a beautiful storybook illustration, but the constant motion in the frame brings life to the beauty. The Great Seanachai, an ancient Faerie whose hair is impossibly long and made of memories, flits from one pile of his own hair to another, almost gleeful in the freedom of squash and stretch afforded to him by the hand of a talented artist, while Macha the Owl Witch manages to slip easily between a kindly old woman and a vicious bird of prey. Scenes which in other hands could become technical centrepieces, like the selkie transformations between seal to human, are instead simple – one moment Saoirse is a girl, then next she is a seal, bright white and glowing. Light is another factor which is played with beautifully throughout the film, both as a sign of magic and a tangible force.
Of course, beautiful visuals would be nothing without a good story, which Song of the Sea is happy to provide. The simple goal of returning home becomes much more complicated when Giants and Owl Witches are involved, but the narrative never feels crowded or meandering in the way Studio Ghibli films sometimes do. This makes the film much easier on younger viewers, without sacrificing complexity for older audiences. Unfamiliar legends are told by Ben to Saoirse, so non Irish audiences aren’t left behind, and the villains have as many motivations as our heroes. The film also includes an emotional punch in the third act (a growing trend in animation), which is on par with many Pixar and Disney releases in terms of tears shed.
The characters themselves are a perfect blend of believability and fantasy. For all his bolstering and attitude, Ben retells his mother’s stories of the Faerie world with an almost sweet belief, and when Saorise is kidnapped by a trio of faeries who live in the middle of a roundabout, he isn’t surprised they exist so much as surprised they’ve forgotten the words to their songs. Saoirse might not say much, but her grumpy nature when Ben takes charge and literally puts her on a retracting dog leash for the journey him speak volumes – as does the curious awe in her face whenever she’s drawn to the water, be it the ocean, a holy well or her grandmother’s bathtub. Together, Ben and Saoirse are an odd couple, but they’re held together by the bond of family, and as much as Ben might resent Saoirse for taking the lions share of her father’s love, he’s still incredibly protective of her. Their father, Conor, is a once strong man wasted away by grief, and his love for his children gives him a presence in the film which belies his screen time.
The film’s composers, Bruno Coulais and Kíla, deserves special mention for the delicate and memorable score – the music of the film is light and magical, and the eponymous Song of the Sea utilises the innocence of Lucy O’Connell’s vocals with the beauty and light of the animation to make for a finale that is not easily forgotten.
It seems like a cheap shot to end with a mention of the film’s cuter aspects, but to not mention the gentle giant Cu, who dwarfs Ben and Saoirse, or the pod of adorable seals that lead Saoirse to the discovery of her powers – or, in fact, Saoirse’s seal form – would be a serious oversight. Seals, bizarrely, have only previously appeared in animated films while trying to eat penguins (Happy Feet, Penguins of Madagascar) but it’s safe to assume that after seeing Song of the Sea, animation studio executives will be green lighting films about plucky young seals who don’t quite fit into their colony and have always dreamed of something bigger left right and centre.