TOMM Moore is one of the finest animators of all time, but not many people seem to make a fuss about him. If you watched 2009’s Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells (co-directed with Nora Twomey), an enchanting blend of modern animation styles and ancient Gaelic motifs, you’ll at least be familiar with his aesthetic. In Kells, he took Irish history and imbued it with an aura of enigmatic myth, transforming a relatively standard narrative into something ethereal and achingly beautiful.
His latest film follows this trend. It’s called Song of the Sea, a film as swooningly gorgeous as it is melancholic. It’s a film that revels in the adventurous flights of youth while addressing the burdens of adulthood. It’s also a film that, handily, fixes the pacing problem that beset its predecessor while retaining its charm, character and blissful animation. It also got nominated at the Oscars, making Cartoon Salon two-for-two.
While channelling similar folkloric precedents as Kells, Song of the Sea transposes the action from the Irish Dark Ages to the relative modernity of 1987, crafting a parallel between a rapidly evolving cityscape and the diminishing powers of myth and legend. Though it features petrified giants, owl-themed witches and seal-children, the film places comparable emphasis on power lines and city lights, tingeing children’s adventure with the sobering effects of reality.
The film hinges on Ben (David Rawle), a pre-teen boy who lives in a lighthouse with his mute sister Saiorse (Lucy O’Connell), his father Conor (Brendan Gleeson) and a shaggy sheepdog named Cú. Following the disappearance of the children’s mother Bronagh (Lisa Hannigan, who also provides much of the soundtrack), the children are taken to the city by their well-meaning Granny (Fionnula Flanagan).
But Saiorse is a Selkie – a human on land, a seal in the ocean – and the last of her kind. Separated from the embrace of the sea, Saiorse begins to ail. It is then up to Ben, with the aid of a gaggle of supernatural assemblage, to return home and heal his sister.
The plot is intricate but never over-complicated. It’s filled with nods to a familial and a mythological past, forever bathed in nostalgia. Song of the Sea, for a piece ostensibly intended for children’s consumption, addresses the rather adult notion of loss, grief and acceptance with maturity. For instance: In the film, Conor’s depression is paralleled by the story of the giant Mac Lir.
This legendary manifestation of anguish receives its human counterpart in Conor, grounding the emotion into something raw and powerful. While Mac Lir drowns his sorrows in the sea, Conor drowns them in a Guinness. The laughter of children in costume at Halloween is mirrored by the banter of bearded faeries. Even the relative familiarity of the narrative speaks to the cyclicity of myth and its relevance to contemporary culture.
Like the best of Studio Ghibli – a studio with which Cartoon Salon has often been compared – Moore’s work often allows time to focus on small gestures and humble imagery. Wide shots of the woods and fields that Ben and Saiorse wander through reveal foxes and badger fens. Tendrils of evening light reveal the peaks of high rises over the horizon, demonstrating the divide between nature and human modernity. Textures and markings on rocks resemble ancient cave paintings.
Beyond these supplementary delights, the simple geometric character designs – reminiscent of The Wind Waker – complement the obvious beauty of the film’s backgrounds. Their gestures and movements flow together with backdrops that are very rarely – likely never – static; there’s always something going on, always something to marvel at. It’s practically a cliché to suggest hanging up individual frames of beautiful animation and calling it art in itself, but it is entirely appropriate for this film.
As with The Secret of Kells, the film occasionally trips up on its own mythologising – parallels between the real and the mythic don’t always quite add up – but its attempts to galvanise the narrative work well. Ben’s arc from surly, resentful sibling to loving, protective brother is particularly arresting, and Saiorse exudes more charm in her silence than most characters in films, animated or otherwise. Granny’s over-protectiveness is tempered by her sad-eyed devotion. It’s a world populated with well-realised characters that, ironically, never come across as cartoonish.
That Song of the Sea feels so real speaks volumes for the love that was clearly poured into its production. Though an astonishingly beautiful farewell to Moore’s own childhood, it’s also an elegy for the relevance of myth in an increasingly modern society. It’s a film born from ancient stories that still resonate with feeling today. With any luck, like the legends it honours, its praises will be sung for years to come.