Ben (David Rawle) blames his mute younger sister Saoirse for their mother’s death during the latter child’s birth. Together with their still-grieving father (Brendan Gleeson), a lighthouse keeper, they eke out an isolated, simple, and comfortable familial existence on a lonely island. That is, until one fateful day, when Saoirse stumbles upon her mother’s shell flute and she discovers both a way to communicate and a means of accessing her family’s magical past. The flute reveals to Saoirse that, like her late mother, she is a Selkie – a creature from Irish mythology that lives as a human on land and as a seal in the sea. This revelation draws Saoirse into the waters surrounding her island home. Upon seeing the girl in the water and assuming her drowned, the children’s grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) panics and takes them away from the island and into the city. Away from the sea, Ben and Saoirse become aware that not only do they have to return to the sea, but also that both their lives and the lives of many fairies depend on it.
So goes the story of Song of the Sea, the gorgeous second animated film from Secret of the Kells director Tomm Moore. To describe the story in words, however, detracts from the wondrous way Moore develops his narrative, using dazzling hand-drawn animation and heartfelt emotion to being his characters, their trials, and Irish mythology to life.
While stylistically unique, Moore’s animation style is spiritually akin to the handcrafted films of Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and even Satoshi Kon’s mid-career films. Like many of the aforementioned directors’ works, Song of the Sea inextricably links the characters, story, and animation together. The animation enhances and builds upon the story to create indelible moments in time that make the full, breathtaking scope of the film impossible to put into words. The animators also deserve credit for imbuing a silent character, Saoirse, with so much personality that the audience gains a full understanding of her as the film progresses.
Although both of Moore’s two feature-length films are worth seeing, Song of the Sea improves upon Secret of the Kells by raising the emotional stakes of its story and heightening the complexity of its characters. Rawle, Gleeson, and Flanagan, as Ben, the father and grandmother respectively, turn in great voice performances that contain so much personality the animations start to feel like in-the-flesh people by the end of the film.
Song of the Sea is a great family movie that addresses difficult, tragic subjects with energy, whimsy, and originality. It’s great to see that there are directors still working in animation that want to give children and their parents something unique and heartfelt when they go to the theatre.