There’s an inherent magic in the process of making still images come to life. It’s little wonder, then, that animation should be the perfect medium for Song of the Sea, a fable where ancient stones are really mythical beings and magical realms lie far beneath the waves.
Director Tomm Moore (The Secret Of Kells) brings a refreshing sense of innocence to his tale about a brother and sister growing up in the southwest of Ireland. Song of the Sea offers a portrait of childhood imagination, fears and wonders. It’s also an unexpectedly disarming film about a family dealing with grief.
Ten-year-old Ben (David Rawle) and six-year-old sister Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) live a seemingly idyllic life on a remote island in the southwest of Ireland. But years earlier, their mother disappeared on the night of Saoirse’s birth, leaving them with their lonely father, Connor (Brendan Gleeson), who’s a lighthouse keeper.
When Saiorse’s found unconscious on the beach one stormy night, a cantankerous grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) insists on taking the children away to live with her in the city. But Saoirse has a mystical connection to the sea, and when her energy begins to fade, she and Ben make the long journey cross country back to their home.
From the very beginning, Song of the Sea bathes the screen in vivid colour and texture. Each shot is beautifully composed with almost geometric precision, every surface seemingly etched or washed with ink. The lyrical art style is full of sparing but captivating detail: the way Saoirse occasionally brushes a lock of hair behind her ear, or the lumbering movements of Ben’s loyal sheep dog, Cu.
There’s also a creative and often very funny use of editing and sound; an exterior shot of children playing happily in the streets on Halloween night cuts abruptly to the staring face of granny’s pet budgerigar and the sound of awful, warbling music playing on an old radio. The juxtaposition of these two shots tells us more about the generational divide between grandmother and children than a slab of dialogue ever could.
The whole film is told with similar wit and surety. Some of its best scenes unfold with barely a word spoken; instead, Moore lets his characters’ body language do all the talking. Saiorse’s all wide-eyed innocence; her father, by contrast, is heavy footed and slumped over, as though he’s bearing the weight of sadness on his shoulders like Atlas.
The Irish landscape is similarly rich with imaginative detail. When the brother and sister go off on their adventure in the countryside, we see a vixen with her cubs and badgers asleep in their setts. Like Moore’s debut feature The Secret Of Kells, Song of the Seaseems greatly influenced by the work of Hayao Miyazaki; like that Japanese master, Moore constantly finds wonder in the natural world, from ancient, soaring Irish cliffs to peaceful, rolling meadows. Ben and Saoirse’s journey is alive with otherworldly beings, some of them little old men who live in a chamber below a roundabout in the city. Another, an owl-like old woman called Macha, is akin to the grotesque Yubaba in Spirited Away.
Song of the Sea’s steeped in Irish folklore, yet the story remains universal. It observantly captures the way children see the world symbolically; adults are like giants or scary, spectral beings. Mild enough to be appreciated by the very young, Moore’s film also has real depth and weight. The further the children go on their adventure, the more we delve into the inner world of its two leads; on one level, this is an Alice in Wonderland-like fable, but on another, it’s about the way children codify and deal with loss.
A handcrafted tale told with real heart, Song of The Sea is guileless work of magic and imagination.