What Irish animator Tomm Moore has been able to accomplish with only two feature length efforts under his belt is nothing short of outstanding and monumental. With his resplendent fairy tale The Secret of Kells in 2009 and now with the fractured folklore adventure of Song of the Sea, he has quickly, swiftly, and deftly positioned himself as a potential international heir apparent to Hayao Miyazaki. While both features weave complex and sometimes surrealist stories around coming of age narratives with unique national identities, Song of the Sea finds Moore working with a bigger palate and even more ambitious material this time out. And it’s astonishing to behold.
Young Ben has been growing into a surly pre-teen. His mother disappeared under mysterious circumstances around the time of the birth of his now 6-year old and still mute sister Saoirse. His father (voiced by Brendan Gleeson, returning after working of Secret of Kells) has been depressed and hitting the bottle, so instead of keeping Ben and Saoirse at their coastal lighthouse home, he allows his uppity mother to bring them to the big city to raise them away from the memories of their past. But as it turns out, Saoirse – like her mother – is secretly a selkie, or a human that can turn into a seal. Getting to the age where she needs to bond with the aquatic part of her personality before it’s too late and she never speaks (or potentially might die), Saoirse escapes with her skeptical brother in tow on a mystical journey back home.
While Secret of Kells was a fantasy, Song of the Sea goes more generally into the same territory as Studio Ghibli by creating a deft, yet uncompromising blend of modern fears and magic realism. Before the adventure even begins for Ben and Saoirse, Moore lays out in heartbreaking detail just how sad of a young man Ben truly is, and how he’s unfairly caught between his father’s depression and his grandmother’s myopic belief that she knows what’s best for everyone involved. Ben’s father dotes on Saoirse as the last remaining link to his departed wife, but he never does anything to help her situation because the one thing that could save his daughter is the one thing that made his wife leave in the first place. Meanwhile, grandma’s a brutish bully who cares about her own privileged way of thinking more than the needs and opinions of others. Since no one listens to him, it’s easy to see why Ben has become the borderline unlikable hero in need of a redemptive arc. He’s a jerk to his sister, but it doesn’t take long for him to realize he’s her only hope of survival in a world filled with mystical baddies who want to harm her and a group of fairies that will be turned to stone one-by-one if she doesn’t return to the sea and the animalistic part of her personality.
When the adventure portion of the story takes hold, Moore let’s his animation team’s imaginations run wild, offering gorgeous set pieces and backdrops that could be hung in museums as paintings. There isn’t a frame of this film that doesn’t feature the best technical animation in any film this year, besting even The Lego Movie and Ghibli’s Tale of Princess Kaguya. The film’s Halloween setting is appropriate because it lends an air of unpredictability. Whether the events are happening in a city or a town or in the fantastic realms of the film’s second half, there’s never a sense of predictability. It might not even be a film that’s necessarily great for the youngest of viewers because it’s actually a really sad story to sit through, and there’s a decided chance that things might end badly for one of the characters. Like any masterful storyteller in the animated world – particularly the works of Miyazaki, Don Bluth, and Brad Bird – Moore has the ability to take his viewers to the emotional and visual edge of what’s possible, and he has faith enough in the audience to push boundaries.
It’s all quite allegorical, drawing on Irish and Scottish history and folklore with a keen eye on the past and present. The fantastical villains are particularly prescient apes of other characters in the real world, especially the smooth talking evil owl that’s a visual dead ringer for Ben and Saoirse’s grandmother. Like any great young adult fantasy creator Moore and screenwriter Will Collins are porting relatable real world fears into otherworldly scenarios. It’s deeply moving, remarkably effective from a narrative perspective, and richly realized on screen.
Sophisticated animation buffs and artistically minded kids who dig fantasy narratives over superhero stories will find a lot to love here. If parents are looking for a smart and independent film to bring the kids to just before the holidays, this is by far the best option out there, and if you’re an adult looking for a great independent fantasy tale, I couldn’t recommend it more strongly.