Song of the Sea

Watching this felt like a dream.

Song of the Sea. That rather generic name belies an animated film of rapturous beauty. I’ve always been partial, as well, to films that draw their artistic and narrative inspiration from a strong cultural core. Song of the Sea is the second film in Irish director Tomm Moore’s oeuvre, the first being the Secret of Kells, and as such has a mythic pedigree drawn from Gaelic legends of selkies, faeries, and pagan gods and goddesses of the Emerald Isle.

Being primarily a film for children, the story is simple and focuses on two siblings, Ben and Saoirse, who live on an island lighthouse with their father. Except Saoirse is no ordinary girl; she, by way of birth, is a selkie, a mythical being that turns into a seal when in water. When Ben was a child, his mother disappeared under mysterious circumstances, leaving behind only baby Saoirse, who has grown into an adorable but mute six-year-old. Ben resents her for seemingly precipitating this disappearance, until, of course, Saoirse is called to fulfill her greater purpose, and Ben must face his own demons as he follows her on this adventure.

It’s a straightforward coming of age plot that wouldn’t be out of place in a Ghibli film, and indeed, this film feels almost like Spirited Away in its deep connection to its cultural roots, child protagonists, wondrous hidden worlds, and the appearance of threatening and oppressive old granny-types. But the plot, simple as it may be, is told with sure confidence and not without emotional heft. The characters are likable and relatable, especially mute Saoirse, who, despite not speaking a word until the end of the film, conveys her spunk and childlike curiosity and wonder through her gestures and her facial expressions. Although the mythological goings-on of the plot can get a little inscrutable, and at times the plot moves forward as a result of MacGuffins, it’s really not an issue because of the film’s dreamlike quality, which lends the fim an air of a bedtime story told next to a warm fire in winter’s heart.

And the art and music – every scene worthy to frame up on a wall, every gentle melodic stirring an emotional sojourn. Song of the Sea has a very distinctive and painterly aesthetic, with backgrounds drawn as abstracted two-dimensional tapestries that make it seem even more like a children’s bedtime story. But drawn sharply against this indistinct backdrop are, once again, fully formed human stories and motivations, and that is really what elevates this work of art from pretty bedtime yarn into something I would unreservedly recommend to anyone.

This film speaks to that ineffable core of humanity that exists in all of us. Drawn from archetypes and myth, it is a fundamental human story of familial love, courage and letting go, told in simple narrative brushstrokes that, like the painterly aesthetic, paint an indelible scene in our collective dreamscapes. Perhaps the biggest annoyance is that in an Oscar season with such gems as this, it had to be the delightful but ultimately cookie-cutter commercial vehicle Big Hero 6 that won the day. But Song of the Sea is beyond accolades. It stands on its own, an underrated gem, like a precious gift. And it is a gift, like a sprinkling of dream dust, that I pass onto you.

I give this film 4.5 out of 5 soot-emitting cars

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