Song of the Sea. Directed by Thomm Moore, performances by David Rawle, Brendan Gleeson, and Lisa Hannigan, Cartoon Saloon, 2014.
Irish myth and legend take center stage when a boy embarks on a mission to save his sister and discover the mystery of his mother’s disappearance in Song of the Sea, a stunningly beautiful, hand-drawn film from independent film maker Tomm Moore. Moore is the creator of the equally stunning animated story The Secret of Kells.
Ben, his sister Saoirse, and their father Conor live on an island in a lighthouse. Ben’s mother disappeared into the sea, and presumably died, on the night that Saoirse was born, leaving Conor broken, Ben angry at his sister, and Saoirse mute. One evening, Saoirse finds a white coat locked in a chest, puts it on, and walks to the sea, where she swims with and then transforms into a seal– she is a selkie. Worried for their safety, their grandmother takes the children back to her house in the city. Conor throws the selkie coat into the ocean.
Ben and Saoirse attempt to make their way back to the lighthouse, but are attacked by owls, and Saoirse is taken away to the Owl Witch, Macha. We learn that Macha turned her son to stone because he was suffering in heartbreak; she has turned the daoine sídhe (fairies) into stone and is turning Saoirse into stone. She is also attempting to take away her own pain, too, and is gradually turning herself into stone. Ben overcomes his fears, finds Saoirse, rescues her though she remains very sick, and frees Macha from her own despair. Macha helps the children head back to the lighthouse, where Ben dives down into the sea to retrieve Saoirse’s selkie coat. Saoirse sings an ancient song, taught to Ben by his mother, that releases the sídhe and Macha’s son from stone, and brings back their mother. Saoirse must make a choice: will she live in the sea as a selkie with her mother, or stay with her human family, and give up her selkie coat? She chooses to live with her family on the lighthouse island. Their grandmother allows the children to live with their father, and happiness is restored.
Song of the Sea is full of themes common in children’s literature and film, including losing a parent, going on child-focused adventures without likely disbelieving adults, overcoming obstacles and fears, and saving the day (for kids AND adults), and growing up as a result of the things they’ve learned about themselves. The English-language film is spoken in Irish English, which might initially present problems for some children, though the actors do a fine job of speaking clearly. Close captioning would help with accessibility. While the film moves along well, and the plot keeps the viewer’s attention, its pace is perhaps slower than most children’s movies– and I think that works well; it moves along at a child’s pace. There are some scenes that might be disturbing to young or sensitive viewers– the loss of the mother early on and the children’s perils on their journeys, as well as the owl witch. But the story itself is brings past and present together in a cohesive adventure story from the child’s perspective.
The soundtrack brings together a new score, and includes traditional (ancient) tunes, adding to the mood and bringing the past forward. But what stands out in this film is the artistry of the animation. It is stunningly beautiful, full of the patterned motifs of ancient Celtic art, the green and blue and brown hues of the island, and a blending of the ancient and contemporary landscapes of Ireland. In this way, the artwork helps to instruct the viewer about the story’s setting and the relationship between myth and history and the land, and adds to the immersion and emotion of the film.
Song of the Sea is about mystery and joy, discovery, and is all about opening up your heart to feel pain, and believing in the healing process. It is a film for most ages, to be watched and appreciated and bewitched by, over and over.
Winner of numerous awards and nominations, including the 28th Annual European Film Award for Best Animated Feature, and the nomination for the 2015 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
Rated PG for some mild peril, language and pipe smoking images