Song of the Sea is a film as light as the wind, and as swift. As airy as the Gaelic song which rides above its plot like a mystical zephyr visiting from another world, it’s a unique fairy tale even among the many supernaturally inclined animated features that have entranced us this year. The Boxtrolls is more aggressively outrageous, The Tale of Princess Kaguya more overtly theosophical. Tomm Moore’s Irish rhapsody of shape-shifting and age-old lore is special because of both its narrative restraint and its visual ambition, an occasionally overwhelming object of color and light with a deceptively modest plot.
The film begins with a beautiful family and a sudden tragedy. Moore presents the young Ben (David Rawle), his father (Brendan Gleeson) and his mother (Lisa Hannigan) as the only family in the world. As they await the arrival of their second child, their idyllic lives are painted by Moore with the sort of contained brilliance that so elevated The Secret of Kells. In one particularly memorable image their home is placed directly into the heavens, like a medieval map of the cosmos. When Saoirse is born, her mother dies in childbirth. This catastrophe breaks the peace of this small universe. Ben and Saoirse are raised by their father on a tiny, remote island off the coast of Ireland. After this sad prelude, Moore jumps ahead to Saoirse’s sixth birthday, the occasion of a visit by the children’s grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan).
At six years old, Saoirse still has not learned to speak. She is also perhaps a magical creature of the sea, a Selkie. These two things are related, as she and her brother will discover over the course of their adventure. Late at night, while secretly playing the shell flute left by her mother, she finds a white cloak in her father’s closet. She puts it on, rushes down to the sea, and turns into a seal. This entire sequence is characterized by bright, mystical lights meandering through a dark blue world. As she transforms for the first time, Moore cuts to a series of foreshadowing introductions of all the fairies of Ireland, sensing this new miracle.
From here, Song of the Sea is off and running. Granny insists on taking the kids back to Dublin with her, separating them from the magical island and the cloak. They must return to reunite Saoirse with her cloak and save all the fairies. Along the way they meet a wide variety of charming and forbidding fairies. Each of these new figures is perfectly animated into their surrounding, complementary. A particular triumph is an eternal spirit who lives deep underground, his defining feature a long white beard made of stories that fills his cavern. There are fairies under a mound in the center of Dublin, fairy horses in the sky and fairy owls in a house on a lake. They all feel as old as time itself, remnants of a long forgotten age of light and shadow.
Much of the mythology matches perfectly onto the story of Ben and Saoirse’s family, which is hardly a new technique for a fantasy narrative. The great forgotten giant Mac Lir will correspond with their father, his great shoulders a recurring visual motif in the film. Flanagan voices both Granny and the aging queen of the owls. This approach lends the story, and particularly the messianic quality of Saoirse’s mission, a great deal of resonance. The plot isn’t particularly complex, but it doesn’t need to be. Song of the Sea has the strong, concise thematic arc of, well, a really well-written song.
All of this is made to stick in the mind by the elegance of Moore’s animation. His rendering of real places, from the coast to the city of Dublin, is done with an impressionistic touch that abstracts the landscape while keeping it grounded in a specifically Irish mode. The big-eyed seals that befriend Saoirse are both easily identified as seals and clearly occupants of some strange, otherworldly milieu. Everything from the grass on an urban knoll to the shape of the children’s island home is caught between the real world and its hidden secrets. More than any other animator this year, with the possible exception of Isao Takahata, Moore has created a hybrid universe of remarkably beautiful flexibility.
The Upside: Charming and occasionally breathtaking, Tomm Moore’s second feature is a quietly musical adventure through a mystically animated Irish landscape.
The Downside: By the end of the film, the easy correspondence of its fairy metaphors with its central family becomes a little bit too perfect, something which may become clunkier with each successive viewing.
On the Side: This is French composer Bruno Coulais’s second collaboration with Tomm Moore, and his first score for an animated film since 2009’s The Secret of Kells and Coraline.