Ben (David Ralwe) lives on a lighthouse with his father Colin (Brendan Gleeson) and little sister Saoirse. His mother vanished the night she gave birth to Saoirse, who is non-verbal. Ben blames his sister for his mother’s disappearance, while Colin struggles to raise his children on his own. When Saoirse discovers a sealskin coat in a wardrobe, it sets her and Ben off into a fantastical adventure inspired by Irish mythology.
Tomm Moore is a sensational director whose 2009 animated feature The Secret of Kells (co-directed with Nora Twomey) was an international critical favourite and Academy Award nominee. His second film not only meets the quality of that debut but actively exceeds it – ultimately receiving an Oscar nomination of its own. The design is original and richly presented, the storytelling is superb, and his sense of Irish culture and aesthetic marks him as a filmmaker not only of great talent but distinctiveness as well.
It is reassuring, in an industry overwhelmed by identical-looking computer-generated art, that there are still animators working with hand-drawn characters and backgrounds. Digital work is clearly done for creating character motion, or providing particular textures or shot movements, but at its heart Song of the Sea feels handcrafted and deeply personal. It positively brims with life.
The designs follow Moore’s established aesthetic: beautifully textured and yet pleasingly simple at the same time. There is no wasted art. Each character is formed with as few details as needed to convince and to charm the audience. This is particularly true as the story enters into fantastical territory, with Ben and Saoirse bumping into fairies, witches, and more in their quest. The use of colour in particular is superb, reminiscent at times of Disney legend Mary Blair.
The use of Irish folklore provides a wonderfully distinct basis on which Moore forms his story. The film is soaked in it, and cleverly educates its audience in advance by telling stories within the main narrative. It is all richly imaginitive, and warmly expressed. It makes the film stand out from its international contemporaries – anyone can tell a story. It feels overwhelmingly like only Tomm Moore could tell this story. It all comes backed by a superb score by Bruno Coulais and folk band Kíla that enriches and emphasises what is already on the screen. It all comes performed by an excellent cast, including Brendon Gleeson, Fionnula Flanagan, and David Rawle. There is even a version of the film out there performed entirely in Irish, for added authenticity.
Of course in the best tradition of all stories, Song of the Sea is not about a magical quest but rather about real emotions and troubles. It is a film about loss and the fear of loss. It is a film that is, quite profoundly, about grief. This is an outstanding work: well animated, well designed, well told.