Animation: Song of the Sea

Dana reviews the 2014 feature, now available on Vudu and Google Play. 

“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…”

With these words from the William Butler Yeats poem, The Stolen Child (1889), a magical tale unfolds in the storybook-illustrated brilliance of 2014’s animated feature film Song of the Sea. And it is indeed the saga of stolen children, in more ways than one.

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Irish animation director Tomm Moore’s films are cultural world-building masterpieces which have brought rich ancient Irish Celtic mythologies into the modern domain with simple, yet extremely lively, character animation and deft storytelling. Linking the worlds of the past and present, the fantastic and the mundane, Moore’s films are celebratory of the profound joys that can be found within the deepest of sorrows and the many ways in which the darkness surrounding us can bring us together, connecting us to one another and to the rest of nature.

The plight of the world’s Fair Folk is matched in microcosm within the fate of a family whose idyllic seaside life has been wracked by grief at the loss of its matriarch, the gentle selkie Bronagh, who died and disappeared into the ocean the night she gave birth to daughter Saoirse.  Left behind with only the memories of her Gaelic lullabies and his handwritten book of bedtime stories of the fairy realm to continue feeling close to his mother in her absence, ten year old Ben blames his little sister for taking her away from him as their father, Conor, sinks into despair. When the children are sent to live with their domineering grandmother, Ben runs away and is swept into magic straight from his mother’s stories as he must overcome not only a perilous journey to his lighthouse island home, but his own grief and inner turmoil to save Saoirse by returning her to the ocean, so that she can gain her voice and sing the fairies home to Tir na nÓg, freeing them from Macha’s curse which has frozen them in stone.

With a rich, glowing palette and simple, yet astoundingly nuanced character designs, Song of the Sea is a visual treasure. Resplendent jeweled hues illumine every place the legends touch, tying Ben’s coming-of-age and Saoirse’s marine homesickness with the blossoming realization that the worlds of humans and fae must be approached with open hearts and freedom to feel pain, so healing may come to both.

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Moore’s gift at storytelling, incorporating visual metaphors to draw parallels between Ben and Saoirse’s family with the Sidhe, Macha the witch, and Manannán mac Lir the giant – including a brilliant scene pairing Ben’s beloved sheepdog, Cú, with mac Lir’s ghostly hounds – births modern lore that stands on its own with a great deal of charm and ingenuity.

Swirling throughout the film is a mellifluous score provided by Bruno Coulais and the Irish group Kíla, a collaboration which similarly brought to life the world of Moore’s 2009 The Secret of Kells and which here delivers the wonder of Moore’s Celtic fable with warmth and heart. Of note in particular is the opening song, performed by Lisa Hannigan, voicing Bronagh in a soft lilt that hides the otherworldly melancholy of a creature caught between the worlds of love for her human family and longing for the open sea and the fairy homeland beyond.

Song of the Sea is, in all senses of the word, a feast to delight fans of animation, Irish culture, and fairytales alike. If traditionally hand-drawn animation is due for a renaissance, Tomm Moore may well be its master – much like the Sidhe themselves, hidden in plain sight.

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 -Dana Culling