Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★

After grandmother (voiced by Fionnula Flanagan) finds young Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) lying along the shore in the middle of the night, she is all the more convinced that Saoirse and her elder brother, Ben (David Rawle), should not be raised in an island. So, with the father’s consent (Brendan Gleeson), Granny hauls the siblings to live in the city. However, ever since that curious night, Saoirse has gotten increasingly sick.

“Song of the Sea” is a wonderfully made, Miyazaki-level animated film that is full of deep emotions, Irish folklores, and surprising turn of events. It is for everyone: young children, adults, ages in-between, people who love and crave the medium of animation, as well as casual viewers on the lookout for gems that might be worth remembering years from now.

The style of animation likens that of a pop-up book. The foreground is almost always flat at first glance but there is something about the background that is constantly alive. And yet the latter does not desaturate the power of what should be the center of attention. On the contrary, the foreground is underlined, especially when it counts, because the eyes of the characters are so expressive, we wonder at the thoughts unsaid.

Saoirse is not yet able to talk but there is not one moment where she is boring. This is a testament to the sheer power of the images. We are able to surmise what she is possibly thinking or feeling when her brother is not very kind to her even though it is her birthday, when Granny uproots them from the only place they have ever known, when her brother decides to share his beloved shell flute. Great animated films share a common quality: Put the picture on mute and one is still likely to have an idea about what might be occurring.

The mythical elements are captivating. Having seen John Sayles’ “The Secret of Roan Inish,” I thought I would not be as engaged because I knew what a “selkie” was. This film is able to explore what a selkie is more deeply because animation allows a level of fantasy that live action pictures might be limited to. We encounter fairies—not the Disney kind—and even then they are written as having a sense of humor or sense of irony to them. Saoirse and Ben encounter creatures that are fascinating, from the extremely long-haired Seanachai (Jon Kenny) to the fearsome Macha (also voiced by Flanagan), mother of spirit-collecting owls.

Directed by Tomm Moore, “Song of the Sea” is not just about how Ben learns to become a better brother. So many animated films stop with delivering a lesson. Not this one. It is about celebrating a specific culture and sharing the magic to those who may not be familiar with Irish, Scottish, and Faroese folklore. It is about family—how it comes apart and being brought together again even though it is not perfect. Perhaps more importantly, it is about celebrating the medium, without or with minimal help of a computer, and pushing what it can do when it comes to telling a specific type of story.

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