Directed by: Tomm Moore.
Written by: William Collins
Starring: Brendan Gleeson (Connor/Mac Lir), Fionnula Flanagan (Granny/Macha), David Rawle (Ben), Lucy O’Connell (Saorise), Lisa Hannigan (Bronagh), Jon Kenny (Ferry Dan).
Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea is one of the most beautiful animated films in recent memory. The story is straight ahead, modern day fairy tale stuff – it doesn’t deviate too much from you expect from the outset – but it is a simple story well told. And the reason to see it isn’t the story anyway – it’s the stunning animation, which uses richly detailed background, and simple character design to stunning effect. Like Moore’s breakthrough film, The Secret of the Kells, the film is utterly charming from beginning to end – and further solidifies him as one of the best directors working in animation today.
The film is about a young boy – Ben, around 9, who lives with his mute sister Saoirse and his depressed father, Connor. Ben hates Saoirse because he blames her for the death of their mother all those years ago – which is also why their father is so depressed. Their grandmother doesn’t think that Connor is doing a good enough raising them – and doesn’t think their house, in a lighthouse on a small island, is an appropriate place for them either – so she takes the pair away to the sister. But Ben is determined to get back home – to their father and his beloved dog Cu – and Saoirse tags along with him. Along the way, he discovers his sister’s mystical powers, which helps guide them home, and puts the stories his mother used to tell him in a different light. He soon realizes that his sister, and their mother before her, are a selkie – creates who are seal in the water, and humans on land. Ben has to get Saoirse home quickly – she needs her special coat, so she can save herself, and all the other mystical creatures who have been turned into stone by the witch Macha and her owl minions.
The story is rather straight forward – and goes in precisely the direction you expect it to. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t completely charming from start to finish. Like some of the best films by animation master Hayao Miyazaki, the film is a gentle fable – nothing too scary here for children, as the film is more interested in evoking a precise moment of childhood than anything else narratively speaking.
The animation is the real star of the film. The film has a simple look on the surface, that gets stunning detailed the more time you spend looking at it. The character design in particular seems rather simple – and yet the characters are varied enough in appearance to be distinctive – and some of the mystical beings are utterly unique (like the man with a very long beard). The backgrounds are more complex than the characters – with details filling each and every frame. As the movie goes along, it becomes even more beautiful, as it adds more and more mysticism to the mixture – and it culminates with an utterly beautiful, and tear jerking, finale which actually earns those tears.
Song of the Sea is the type of animated movie that Hollywood either doesn’t know how to make or doesn’t seem much interested in making. Most of the animated film from the studios – even the good ones – use non-stop action, blindingly bright colors, and off color humor in an effort to appeal to both children and adults. Few movies actually get that balance correct. Song of the Sea doesn’t bother with that – it tells a story simply, and beautifully, so that anyone watching – children or adult – will be utterly transfixed and moved by it. Apparently, with their star director, Miyazaki, retiring, Studio Ghibli is stepping away from feature animation for a while at least. That is disappointing news to say the least. But the emergence of Moore at least gives us something to look forward to.