by Byron BixlerLike the best animated fantasies, Song of the Sea comes at the viewer with the kind of serenely poetic energy often only reserved for lullabies. Its world is expansive—seemingly pre-formed from Celtic mythologies. Humans tell stories of ancient spirits while unknowingly rubbing shoulders with the very entities they speak of and the painterly animation solidifies this sentiment, encompassing a feel for the unreal and the deeply spiritual within its gloriously expressive environments.
A young boy named Ben and his father are left in confusion and mourning after his mother abruptly leaves, slipping into the sea following a heartfelt apology. Something compelled her to go, but it is initially a mystery to us. She leaves behind a baby girl, named Saoirse, whom the father implores his stubborn son to always love and look after. Years go by and things are quiet at the lighthouse where the family of three resides. The father goes into town to quietly console himself at the local pub and the children clash as siblings do; Ben easily succumbing to frustration as his silent sister follows him around.
One night, Saoirse is called to the waves, enticed by a party of small glowing lights. There, she wades in, joining the seals that await her and becoming one herself, arriving back on shore only to be discovered by her fussy grandmother (who was visiting at the time). Granny, believing she knows what’s best, convinces the father that the children should stay with her, far away in the city—a proposition that the father sorrowfully agrees to. But Ben is determined to make it back to the lighthouse, and in fleeing from the grandmother with Saoirse in tow, he embarks on a journey full of magical encounters.
Song of the Sea expands upon the possibilities of director Tomm Moore’s debut, The Secret of Kells in thrilling fashion. His visual style has remained consistent in its “stained glass-like” manner, but the content has grown even more diverse in its creativity. He finds beauty and mystery in every corner, every setting.
But the beauty on display isn’t hollow. It’s in service of a story filled with faeries, elves, sorcerers and benevolent creatures, all co-existing against a backdrop of harmonious nature. Each encounter comes about with the wide-eyed sense of discovery usually found in fairy tales: a child stumbling across some mystical force thought to be fictional, but there it stands, smiling curiously. But, there are no imperfect heroes or entirely evil villains here—only those who struggle for liberation and those who are misunderstood and misguided (one “antagonist” in particular embodies the contradictions of Yubaba from Spirited Away and The Witch of the Waste from Howl’s Moving Castle). Furthermore, screenwriter Will Collins pulls off some brilliant parallels between the human and non-human characters, suggesting the closeness of the two realms as well as the fact that mythological beings are ultimately reflections of our own desired and rebuked traits.
As I’ve suggested, it’s a rich landscape of enchanted locations and characters that is reminiscent of the folklore-infused odysseys of Hayao Miyazaki—stunningly detailed on the outside and surprisingly mature on the inside. The story is dealing with themes of responsibility, parental loss and the easing of internal pain and the film handles these issues with some much appreciated patience, allowing emotions to settle rather than distrusting its audience with reductive sermonizing or distracting gags.
The film is a luminous, big-hearted triumph that easily trounces the shallow offerings of most contemporary family movies. A total delight and extremely satisfying.
4.5 out of 5 stars