“You’re going to be the best big brother in the world”
Writer/director Tomm Moore received the okay to contemporize his peoples’ folklore from the seanachai he listened to while growing up in Ireland, Eddie Lenihan. A traditional storyteller known for modernizing these same archetypes, Lenihan explained to Moore that adapting them to our time might be the only way for us to keep them alive now that new technology has forced the oral custom of passing down history moot. He’s right too as the two films Moore has thus crafted toe the line of sacred fairy tale and present aesthetic both in story and visuals. For his latest, Song of the Sea, a conscious decision to skew towards younger audiences may in fact make its success an even greater inevitability than his debut The Secret of Kells. It resonates in its Celtic origins and inspires in its emotional universality.
The plot focuses on the ancient idea of “selkies”—people who can transform into seals and are often attributed to souls lost at sea, transforming death into rebirth. Like most mythology dealing in spirits and fairies able to walk amongst humans in a similar form, this one begins with the union of selkie (Lisa Hannigan‘s Bronach) and man (Brendan Gleeson‘s Conor). Already parents to a young son Ben (David Rawle), it’s the coming birth of a sister (Lucy O’Connell‘s Saoirse) that has everyone excited for the future. Bronach tells her boy fantastical stories of the great Mac Lir and his mother Macha (Fionnula Flangan), the owl witch, who helped ease his broken heart by stealing away his emotions and rendering him to stone. It’s the type of awe-inspiring yarn that facilitates an imagination and belief in the impossible.
Sadly, on the night Saoirse’s born, Bronach vanishes amidst the seals. Fast-forward six years to the day and we’re reacquainted with a boy devoid of that magical gleam in his eye. Ben is now jaded, retaining the stories his mother told as a reminder of her while his sister becomes the cause of his loss. Once wanting nothing more than to be a great brother, he only supplies her anger rather than love. So, it doesn’t help when she finds herself following animated balls of light to a perfectly tailored, bright white coat for a journey all the way to shore of her father’s lighthouse and the water itself. This proves the last straw for the kids’ grandmother (Flanagan as well) who carts them to the city while Conor and their dog Cu remain at the sea.
Enter a conch shell flute, a trio of woodland fairies, and villainous owls carrying jars in their talons to trap the feelings of anyone in their grasp and Ben soon discovers his mother’s stories may not have been fiction after all. This revelation means Saoirse is more than a little, mute girl—she’s also the last selkie able to heal countless fated to grow moss atop their motionless stone façades. Ben becomes the protector of a fantasy world a few steps removed from his own, a shepherd tasked to bring his sister back to the lighthouse so she can sing a song and coax life out of darkness. In great Disney (Alice in Wonderland) and Miyazaki (Spirited Away) tradition, this means visiting eccentrics (Jon Kenny‘s Great Seanachai) and confronting Macha herself for wisdom and strength of will.
Similar to Secret of Kells in an animation style rendering 2D frame simultaneously flat and three-dimensional, Moore also allows art director Adrien Merigeau‘s painterly textures to lend the canvas an even more unique look than his own already was. There’s a rough quality to the line work wherein some instances of background detail find objects overlapping each other without the edges of one disappearing behind the body of another. The effect lends a wonderful hand-made aesthetic in its intentional embracement of its own artifice. Add the storybook motions where things like waves appear to be paper moving as a layer above another on top of another and it sets itself apart from the smoothly pristine Pixar form much like the roughly pressed Boxtrolls. Its incorporation of pre-Celtic carvings simply enhances its already exotic, international feel.
And while it’s definitely targeted at children relating to the struggles of being a sibling or living in a single-parent household, don’t think about dismissing it as nothing more than cartoon frivolity. If there’s one thing Moore has proven with his films besides a flair for off-the-beaten-path artistry, it’s his penchant for intellectual storytelling that provides a fresh new world to explore and understand. Scripted by Will Collins from a story originated by Moore himself, Song of the Sea fearlessly dances between cute familial moments of comedy and the dark sorcery able to engage kids without scaring them towards nightmares that many current storytellers forget in lieu of conflict-free resolutions. The villains may transform into allies before the end, but that doesn’t mean the acts they perform at the start don’t pose our heroes a grave danger.
For those heroes’ sake, Saoirse and Ben are great. The former is more of a coveted piece to salvation than active participant in the adventure, but she rises to the occasion when necessary much like River Tam in “Firefly”. Ben’s evolution progresses to allow each one of us to project our own ups and downs in sorrow and hope. He would give anything to be rid of the hole his mother’s disappearance left, but what consolation is a life devoid of feeling? Where joy once resided is now anger at an innocent girl. It may not be warranted or healthy, but it’s at least something. It’s a form of love he hadn’t yet comprehended; one only the threat of being without can open his eyes. And when it does he sees his mother’s light lives on in her.
Rating: PG | Runtime: 93 minutes | Release Date: December 19th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: Optimum Releasing / GKIDS
Director(s): Tomm Moore
Writer(s): Will Collins / Tomm Moore (story)