In an era of big studio 3D CG films, The Song of the Sea offers a lovely reminder of the personal visions
drawn animation can offer. Although the visual style is related to Moore’s
critically acclaimed The Secret of Kells,
Song of the Sea further demonstrates that
he’s a skillful director with a singular point of view.
The film takes place on Halloween, 1987, a day Moore has
said he remembers from his boyhood. Ben (David Rawle), an adolescent who’s
fascinated with drawing and the old stories his mother told, lives on a tiny
island off the coast of Donegal with his father Conor (Brendan Gleeson), his sheepdog
Cu (“Koo”) and his silent younger sister Saoirse (“Sir-sha”). Ben’s mother
disappeared the night Saoirse was born, and Ben clearly blames the loss on her.
Saoirse is drawn to the sea, which terrifies Ben: Although
he’s a lighthouse keeper’s son, he can’t even swim. Their primly disapproving Grandmother
(Fionnula Flanagan) insists on taking the children to Dublin where they’ll be “safer.”
Furious at being forced to leave Cu behind, Ben escapes her fustian house;
During their efforts to return to their home on the coast, Ben
gradually realizes that his sister is not an ordinary mortal, but a Selkie, a supernatural
being capable of transforming into seal and living underwater. She must find
her coat to acquire her voice, so she can sing a magical song only she can
perform. Other spirits aid her quest. Macha the Owl-Witch (Flanagan again, in
an effective piece of double casting) tries to prevent Saoirse from realizing
her destiny for her own reasons.
Saoirse’s song provides the restorative power the supernatural
beings of Irish folklore have long awaited. Its magic recalls Aisling’s enchantments
in Secret of Kells, but this music is
grander and less personal. It give the legendary characters the strength to
emerge from the stones that have imprisoned them, not as diminutive Leprechauns
hawking marshmallow breakfast cereal, but as the tall and graceful Fair Folk of
legend. Even Mac Lir, the grief-stricken giant Macha transformed into an
island, regains his proper form and mobility.
In its best moments, Song
of Sea feels like a folk tale come to life. Although they drew on old legends,
including ones involving Selkies, Moore and scriptwriter Will Collins created
the story. Like Brendan in Kells, Ben
is an artistic boy. He rises to the challenges of saving his sister, but he lacks
some of the curiosity and initiative that made Brendan so appealing. The
animation is subtler and more graceful than it was in Kells: the artists have clearly learned to work more effectively
with the stylized designs. Although she doesn’t speak for most of the film,
Saoirse emerges as a fully-realized character—a challenge the animators might
not have been able to meet on Kells.
Song of the Sea is
a visual delight. It’s clearly the work of the artists who envisioned and
designed the beautiful Secret of Kells,
but the backgrounds are a little less stylized. The shapes in the landscapes
still relate clearly to each other and to the characters in ways that please
the eye, but the forms are a bit rounder and less angular. Many of the same
influences can be clearly seen, from UPA and Samurai Jack to traditional Irish art and the work of Marcell
Jankovics. But the designers have had time to grow and think and put an
individual stamp on the film.
Moore has commented that 1987 was transitional time in
Ireland. The last lighthouse was electrified, eliminating the need for human keepers.
On that rainy Halloween night, Moore sensed that the old traditions he loved were
either dying out or being transformed into watered-down stories for tourists. The
return of the traditional characters at the end of the Song of the Sea suggests his repudiation of the limp, diluted
version of a proud ancient culture.