When The Lego Movie (2014) was surprisingly overlooked at the Academy Awards earlier in the year, one of the theories posited for its shock exclusion was to do with technique. If the animators involved in shortlisting were showing preference for more old-fashioned, unique, and hand-crafted creations then it is very clear to see why Tomm Moore’s breathtaking Song of the Sea (2014) was included. An independent Irish production, it immerses itself in Celtic folklore presented in a richly evocative and arresting animation style that was rightly lauded at the industry’s biggest awards.
What’s more, it’s a mythic tale of loss and love is just as likely to beguile as its beautiful visuals are.One of the other films nominated for the Oscar was The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2014) and Song of the Sea shares with it an admirable desire to evoke cultural tradition within the drawings themselves. This is particularly dazzling in the prologue which takes place in windows of action with Celtic patterns swirling around them, and the feeling of an old magic still very much alive pervades every frame. That aesthetic stays true to its roots even as it strikes out on its own path. Of particular note is the way that it plays with perspective which is especially observable during the scenes in The City – there’s also something of Sylvain Chomet to be seen in the brown and grey of the urban landscape.
Much like its framing of the visuals, the mythology pulsates at the edges of the narrative and winds its way through the central story in perfectly complementary fashion. Youngsters Ben (David Rawle) and Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) are separated from their father (Brendan Gleeson) and set out on a journey back to their Island home. Along the way they may meet faeries, giants, selkies and owl witches in an ostensibly fantastical yarn but the crux of the piece is grief and finding a way to carry on in the face of great sadness. Ben and Saoirse’s relationship constitutes the primary arc – an older brother annoyed by his adoring younger sister – but their absentee mother and mourning father pack a surprisingly hefty emotional punch for what may otherwise appear lightweight. The father’s journey runs in parallel to that of the legendary giant Mac Lir, who turned to stone after his tears of grief created the ocean when he lost his wife.
These tragic themes do not upend the tone of Song of the Sea as much as complement it, particularly with the haunting eponymous melody tinkling in the background throughout. This is not a children’s adventure that lacks peril or danger, but one that poetically explores loss and manages to poignantly overturn the myth of redemptive violence. Ultimately, the little specks of magic that trail Saoirse around throughout the film manage to break free of the screen and enchant all watchers. Moore’s Song of the Sea solicits myth to tell a wonderfully human story that will have audiences weeping and beaming in the isles, not least thanks to the irresistible charms of its glorious visuals.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson