Song Of The Sea
Irish animation is a small industry, which has managed to punch above its weight in recent times thanks to the work of people like Tomm Moore and studios like Brown Bag Films. They may not be big enough to have Pixar on the run, but they are making waves. Moore’s The Secret Of Kells had enough of a following to get an Oscar nomination; the resulting kudos were enough to propel Moore along the road to his next project, with a whole heap of funding from various European sources helping it as well. An animated story taking a huge dose of inspiration from Celtic mythology and other Irish artistic legacies, is Song Of The Sea worthy of the critical praise that saw it too receive Oscar recognition last year, ahead of its Irish theatrical release recently?
Ben (David Rawle) and his mute younger sister Saoirse live in an isolated Donegal lighthouse with their distant father Conor (Brendan Gleeson), Ben dimly remembering the disappearance of his mother on the night of Saoirse’s birth. During a visit from an interfering grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) Saoirse finds herself led to the ocean by mysterious lights, and it is not long before she and her brother are drawn into a cross-country adventure of selkies, witches and giants, with Saoirse the key to the opening of Tir na Nog.
Song Of The Sea was a really interesting experience. A nuanced and well-made animated film, it is the kind of refreshing thing that serves both to enchant and inspire: a true testament, in a visual sense at the very least, of all that is possible in the world of animation.
Here is something for everyone to enjoy. The story is both fantastical and accessible: dark and emotional enough to satisfy the older crowd, but with enough whimsy and wonder that smaller patrons will not find themselves lacking for stuff to appreciate. And, more than anything else, it is just very, very Irish, in a way that so many films just aren’t: Irish in its visual style, Irish in its story, Irish in its cast. Sure, a cursory glance at the credits throws up some surprising names when it comes to patrons, but Song Of The Sea is a film wrapped up in a very Irish identity. I don’t want to come off as some kind of film nationalist, this country has produced lots of great films, and will again. But this film is particularly Irish, made by people who have a deep love for this country and the myths that it has played host to.
The narrative pulls a mirror act, contrasting the story of Ben, Saoirse and their father with mythological figures from a past long forgotten by most. At its heart, it is a story about grief and how different people approach it. Poor Ben, abandoned by his mother very early, finds a cipher for his mourning through tormenting and badly treating his sister Saoirse. She finds solace in silence, while their father, lost in a dream of a time that can never be again, is like a barely functioning zombie. It is, from the start, a touching family drama, but it does not take very long, thankfully, for the stuff we have all come to see begin to take centre stage.
From the moment that Saoirse dives into the Atlantic, transforming into a creature of legend and swimming with seals, you get whisked into a world of half-remembered poetry sprinkled with a modern garnish. Selkies, nefarious owls, trad-playing fairies, craven witches, old tales told by soothsayers, visions in the night sky, giants, Tir na Nog and the things that go bump in the night: Song Of The Sea is full of them all, but manages to blend them into a modern set narrative, in a way that a lot of media often fails to do.
But it never forgets that it is, at heart, a story of siblings, a brother and sister naturally sundered by various tragedies and heartaches, who must find a common bond if they are to overcome the unexpected and dangerous obstacles ahead of them. An expansive narrative, with a strong backbone: just what you need, and Moore is able to get inside the mind-set of children with ease. Sibling relationships are complex things, and Moore understands that. With that strong emotional core, Song Of The Sea is already hooking its audience in very early on.
There isn’t anything too inventive in the general gist of the plot of course, and elements of it – like the last 20 minutes or so – are conventional enough. It’s no spoiler to say that a happy ending is to be expected, as Song Of The Sea isn’t going to be challenging its audience too much in that regard. Much of the film is wrapped up in melancholy and sadness, not unlike the stories that it takes its inspiration from, but a modern take results in a more modern conclusion.
The tale unfolds in an almost episodic way, like chapters in a much larger story. The escapades vary in tone and message: sibling disputes becomes muddled memory becomes dealing with grief becomes the bottling up of emotions. There are no real antagonists, bar the serial abuser that is depression: much like the recent Inside Out, Song Of The Sea makes the point that feeling sad is a necessity for good mental well-being, a natural part of the grieving process, a message that should resonate more than ever in the modern age (the role of Conor, and his empty driftwood nature, is a poignant look at the silence that infects Irish masculine identity).
A section that obviously takes place in a 1980’s Dublin, even if not named directly (every bit the “big smoke”), seems to give the impression that the Irish people have left too much of their past behind, content to bury the fairies and their forts underneath buildings, roundabouts and lighthouses, in essence, losing what makes us Irish in the first place. This is portrayed melodramatically at times, but is effective for the most part. Ben and Saoirse’s wandering journey home is one where they must learn that all of this fairy stuff is worth discovering anew, and preserving.
It’s a hard enough task: the world of fairies in Song Of The Sea is an abandoned forgotten one, where the ancient races turning to stone is indicative of the stoic and cold way that such legends are sometimes treated nowadays. The fact that the parables of old actually become real – and in numbers – might lessen the impact of this more allegorical point, but its central thesis is to be noted. It isn’t one that I happen to agree with, and Moore does over-egg it at times in the last half, but it’s hardly surprising to see such a message in a film of this nature. That dark streak is still present throughout – if this film has one message, it’s that heartache and depression are inevitabilities in life, it’s how you deal with them that is important – but it is also, nominally, a movie for children.
The lack of a villain is usually a terrible flaw in a film such as this, but Song Of The Sea is more intelligent than your standard Disney fare: the rejection of convention works well in this case, and makes the film stand out even more. The closest we get to one has a depth to her that is surprising and delighting, tying back into the dual nature of the modern day story and the tales that it is intentionally aping. If the film has a flaw, it’s in its length: perhaps 15 to 20 minutes too long for the actual story it wants to tell, Song Of The Sea seems to want to luxuriate in its surroundings and artwork just a bit longer than it really has to, and a degree of tightening up would not have gone amiss.
Rawle has already made his chops on TV of course, but he also has a talent for voice acting it seems, as he gives Ben all of the right kinds of emotion for a boy on the cusp of becoming something else, and struggling with the transition when it comes to his sister and changing surroundings. There is bitterness and love at different turns, and throughout Rawle carries a passion and believability in everything he says. Gleeson will probably never have an easier role to play in his career, Conor meant to be an emotionally dead man for the majority of the film, which isn’t exactly hard to play. Flanagan, always a delight, is one of the films highlights, in a dual role that ties in directly to the films two-pronged look at Irish myth.
The visuals are stunning. Radiating various shades of blue and green, Tomm Moore’s film takes us on a journey through the sea, through the wilds of Ireland, through the dinginess of its city centres. There is an obvious care and love put into every finely crafted frame. Jutting islands covered in ancient lines, underground lagoons of hair and shadows, the home of the dreaded witch Macha and her jars of emotions, they all come together, painted and animated in a way bound to catch the eye, to inflame the visual sense. There is more than a little hint of Ghibli at times (in elements of the story too, if we are being honest) and it’s clear that the Japanese giant has left its mark on Moore’s consciousness, especially in those sections featuring Macha, which do invoke memories of Spirited Away. In Ghibli’s best way, old traditions have been reworked into something new, and that famed studio’s current state of paralysis in its creative direction/control means that we should perhaps be discussing successors to its legacy.
Regardless, Song Of The Sea remains its own thing for the most part, and it is the quintessential Irishness of it all makes it all the more thrilling for an Irish audience (though I can imagine that others might not be as captivated). But even beyond that, there are things to admire: the contrast of light and shadow, the way that the film plays with false perspective and the intense amount of time and effort put into something as simple as background clouds and weather. It’s always gratifying to see an animated film, in a time and place where 3D has become pedestrian, actually pull things off that impress.
Musically, the film is a serious stand-out as well, utilising classical Irish instruments and tunes, with band Kila mixing up modern and ancient themes flawlessly. The titular song, a haunting melody that is at once a dirge and a celebration, repeats much, and while probably overplayed by the conclusion, added that right sense of melancholy and epicness to the unfolding narrative. Credit to Lisa Hannigan for that, and her voice is just right for everything that the actual “Song of the Sea” has to be.
We are currently living in – I can’t really say “enjoying” I’m afraid – an age where 3D animation is king, even if the multitude of offerings from that sub-genre are becoming less and less thrilling to behold, exemplified by the rather disappointing Minions (but countered by the already mentioned Inside Out). 2D animation needs to work harder than ever to be noticed, and that genre as a whole could do a lot worse than look to the example of Song Of The Sea. True, it is a bit lengthy, melodramatic at times, and a bit too high and mighty with some of its messages. But it is also stunning in its visuals, unique in some artistic and inspirational choices, and overall a grand endeavour, which exhibits Celtic artistry and fable with flair and panache. Animation will always struggle to be taken seriously in the larger world of film, but Song Of The Sea is one film that shows exactly why it should be. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of StudioCanal).