Now available to rent, the Oscar-nominated Song of the Sea is enchanting, moving, and impossibly beautiful.
Remember me in your stories and in your songs. Know that I will always love you, always.
Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary Japanese animator and director with over two dozen marvelous credits to his name, once shared his mantra when it came to storytelling: “Life is still worth living. It is possible for wonderful encounters and beautiful things to exist.” His films found magic in everyday things, drawn from legend and myth, and while the stories may have often been uncomplicated, they tapped into deep wellsprings of emotion we all share: loss and love; fear and courage. Most of all, his films were drop-dead gorgeous. Now Miyazaki is retired, but the baton has been passed to an unlikely artist: 38-year-old Irishman Tomm Moore.
Moore, a longtime student of classical animation, founded Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny, Ireland in 1998, but it was eleven years until the release of his first feature, The Secret of Kells, which wedded early Christian history and Celtic folklore with an extraordinary hand-drawn animation style — modeled off the real illuminated manuscript that gives the film its name. It was nominated for Best Animated Feature in 2010, and now with Song of the Sea (co-written with Will Collins), Moore and Cartoon Saloon are two-for-two.
Sea — which, unlike Kells, is set not in the 9th century but the present day — centers on a brother and sister, Ben and Saoirse, who live with their father (Brendan Gleeson) in his lighthouse on the Irish coast. Their mother died giving birth to Saoirse under mysterious circumstances, and on the girl’s 6th birthday she has yet to speak a single word. But her curiosity draws her to the only artifacts her mother left behind: a shell flute and a seal coat, both of which seem to hold a magical power.
Her older brother Ben (David Rawle) resents her for taking their mother away, while their father is still broken by grief. All Ben has is his loyal sheepdog, Cu (Gaelic for “Dog,” naturally), but Saoirse has a secret: she’s a “selkie,” a being from Scotch-Irish folklore who can transform into a seal when in water. When Ben and Saorise’s imperious grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) takes them to live with her in the city, it isn’t long before Saoirse’s destiny becomes unavoidable, as she also unlocks the ability to free the spirits of faeries trapped in stone — and Ben must do what he promised his mother years ago: protect his little sister from the dark forces gathering around them.
Moore said upon the film’s release that he saw these old folktales as allegorical, where the original coastal communities of Ireland and Scotland — the “People of the Sea” — had created stories as a way to process their own grief and loss. He sought to revive and update the tales for the modern world, taking a cue from Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli in animating them in a style that was recognizably an extension of his own culture. And like Japan, the British Isles have a mind-bogglingly ancient history just underfoot, in the carved stones and remnants of civilization that cover the land to this day.
The film begins with lines from William Butler Yeats’s poem, “The Stolen Child”: Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand in hand, / For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand. Out off the promontory of Ben and Saorise’s home sits an enormous rock, which — according to legend — was once an ancient spirit, who once mourned so greatly that he was turned to stone; the better not to feel anything at all than face his grief. He serves as a clear mirror for the siblings’ father, which younger viewers will likely not understand; the film is as much a whimsical fable about a girl with magical abilities as it is a thematically rich story of loss and redemption. Therein lies Song of the Sea‘s power, and its beauty.
Song of the Sea is marvelously designed (by Adrien Merigeau) in a color palette of deep blues, greens, and grays — it shows a landscape where it is always either raining, or just about to rain — and drawn with a similarly wet, almost watercolor aesthetic. But it is undeniably stunning; you could take any single frame from the film and put it on your wall. The characters may be simplistic, almost cartoonish, but that’s not a bad thing — there’s more elegance and charm here than in countless CGI monstrosities. You lose yourself in these visuals, and in the music (from composer Bruno Coulais and folk band Kíla, all returning from Kells): Saoirse produces a haunting, achingly lovely melody on her mother’s shell flute, culminating in a stunning climax that leaves you with goosebumps on your arms and a lump in your throat.
In order to keep a culture’s folklore from becoming ossified and forgotten, it must be told and re-told over and over again, in different ways, searching for fresh angle that will grab the youngest hearts. The bones of the old stories remain, but the details can change to reflect the changing world. That’s the beauty of allegory: it speaks to all ages and all times; each new generation finds their own meaning. And what Miyazaki did with it for Japan for over thirty years, Moore is doing for Ireland. The results — in now two astonishing films that held both myself and my four-year-old daughter in rapture — speak for themselves. Whatever he does next, I’ll be first in line.