Song Of The Sea (Cert PG)
1 Disc (Distributor: Studio Canal) Running Time: 93 minutes approx.
In terms of modern animated films, the mainstream masses have chosen Hollywood heavy hitters PIXAR as their saviour while the more discerning film fan looks to Studio Ghibli from Japan as theirs. So it is a pleasant surprise that the gauntlet for delivering whimsical family entertainment has picked up by Ireland!
The second feature length film from co-founder of Cartoon Saloon Tomm Moore, who gave us 2009’s The Secret Of Kelis, draws heavily on Irish folklore in sharing with us a charming magical tale of a family divided by grief which leads to an adventure to save the mystical spirits of the land.
On the night Bronagh (voiced by Lisa Hannigan) gives birth to a baby girl named Saoirse, she suddenly disappears, leaving behind her distraught husband Connor (Brendan Gleeson), their young son Ben (David Rawle) who grows up resenting Saoirse for their mother leaving. On her sixth birthday Saoirse plays a shell that belonged to her mother which leads her to a chest in which she finds a white coat. Saoirse puts it on and is drawn to the sea where she transforms into a white seal and swims with the other seals.
Worried about the girl, Connor sends his children away to live with their grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) in the city but Ben misses his sheepdog Cú and decides to return home to reunite with him. Saoirse tags along, her presence attracting a group of faeries revealing her to be the last of the Selkies and they can only be returned to their homeland of Tír na nÓg when Saoirse sings The Song Of The Sea.
If initial comparisons to the works of Hayao Miyazaki come to mind when viewing this film, they are not lazy or coincidental as both Asian and Irish folklore feature many stories of otherworldly spirits and creatures to serve as moral metaphors to be handed down from generation to generation. One can certainly see a passing resemblance to Miyazaki’s celebrated Spirited Away in the plight of the faeries and in the principal antagonist Macha the Owl Witch (Flanagan again).
But this is no Miyazaki copy or homage, The Song Of The Sea is its own film and brings with it is own rewards, creating a style and personality of its own through its unique visual presentation. Those weaned on the flawless CGI output of PIXAR, DreamWorks et al will find the humble but scrappy looking 2D cell drawn animation a shock but don’t mistake this as a sign of low quality – this simple style which recalls modest European animations of the 60’s is absolutely perfect for the story it is telling.
At the centre of this tale is the tradition of passing down fables through the family line, which Bronagh enjoyed doing with Ben. One in particular which Ben later recounts to Saoirse concerns the legend of Mac Lir the Giant, whose sad feelings were stolen by his mother Macha turning Mac Lir to stone. This is the same fate that befell the faeries, Macha sending her owls to trap their emotions into jars.
Of course Saoirse isn’t aware that she is a Selkie – women who can change into seals – until that fateful night on her sixth birthday but to confound matters further, she hasn’t spoken a word since birth. Her only musical expression comes from the shell, but the greater distance between Saoirse and the sea causes her to fall ill and age drastically.
As much as this is a fantasy adventure for the kids, there is a moral message running beneath the wistful and colourful façade reinforcing the importance of family. Ben has shunned his sister since their mother left, the events of this adventure causing him to reassess his behaviour and attitude towards Saoirse and honour the promise he made his mother to be the “best brother in the world”.
This is not as contrived and corny as it may sound, with writer Will Collins and Tomm Moore keeping the emotional aspect in check so we are suitably touched and embrace the natural warmth of the sentiments but not deliberately manipulated into reaching for the tissues for the sake of it. Even the relationship between Ben and sheepdog Cú is played out like a genuine boy and his pet partnership, avoiding any needless lachrymose embellishment.
While the visuals may not be as slick as PIXAR films, they not only compliment the simple story but make the sound and voice acting become a more prominent feature to notice and enjoy. The entire cast deliver their dialogue naturally and without excess in line with the undemanding script, while the earthy diegetic sound effects come to the fore, enhancing the whole magical experience making it fully immersive for the audience.
Obviously music plays a big part in this story and Moore has used an effective mix of traditional Gaelic folk tunes and a stirring score from composer Bruno Coulais collaborating with Irish group Kila. From lilting background pieces to jaunty jigs, each mood – light and dark, humorous and emotional – is well represented, with the centrepiece being the majestic ethereal Enya-esque ballad that is the titular melody.
Tomm Moore knows how to spin a decent yarn and, like Miyazaki, animation appears to be the perfect medium to facilitate this for him. One can feel his comfort with this art form in every frame, understanding the nuances and scope for expression and flights of fancy it can bring him which live action often can’t with the same credibility.
In Song Of The Sea we have a modern rendering of a classic fairy tale-cum-fantasy adventure which will appeal to kids and adults alike. One can recognise the same magical qualities in the evergreen animated films in this one which will no doubt join the ranks of those delightful classics in years to come.
An enchanting and endearing treat for all ages for the ages.
English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
Gaelic 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
Audio Commentary With Tomm Moore
Behind The Scenes (w/ optional Tomm Moore commentary)
The Art Of Song Of the Sea
Rating – ****
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