Director: Tomm Moore
Screenplay: William Collins
Based on a Story by: Tomm Moore
Starring: David Rawle, Brendan Gleeson, Lisa Hannigan, Fionnula Flanagan, Lucy O’Connell
Country: Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, France
Running Time: 93 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Even though Song of the Sea, Tomm Moore’s follow up to The Secret of Kells, got nominated for ‘Best Animated Feature’ at the last Academy Awards ceremony (Kells also got a nomination back in 2010), it wasn’t released in the UK until July of this year. Being a big fan of animated films and having liked Kells quite a bit, I’ve been desperate to catch Song of the Sea after its surprise Oscar nod. It didn’t play for long in my local cinema though, so I missed it, which meant I was incredibly grateful to be offered a chance to review the UK Blu-Ray release recently.
Like a number of classic animated films, Song of the Seaopens with tragedy. Ben (voiced by David Rawle) is left heartbroken by the death of his mother, who dies giving birth to his sister Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell). Because of this, Ben is quite hostile to his little sister, who still hasn’t spoken by her 6th birthday. Their father Conor (Brendan Gleeson) is a shell of a man after the tragedy and the three live a quiet, over-protective existence in a lighthouse on a lonely island. The children’s stubborn old grandma (Fionnula Flanagan) arrives one day, who believes the island is no place for youngsters to grow up and, after a close call when Saoirse is found washed up on the beach, she takes the kids to live with her in the local town.
Ben will have none of this though and runs away to make his way back home. Saoirse secretly escapes too, so he’s forced to have her tag along. There’s more to Saoirse than meets the eye though. In her nighttime escapade in the sea she discovered that she’s actually half selkie, a magical creature that can turn into a seal. By unlocking her powers, she awakens numerous spirits around the area and the two children become embroiled in a mystical quest to free a number of fairy creatures who have been turned to stone by the witch Macha (also voiced by Fionnula Flanagan).
I thought Song of the Sea was fantastic. The clear selling point to the film is its striking visual style. It looks absolutely stunning. The film has the look of a beautifully illustrated children’s book rather than the formally standardised (but nevertheless finely crafted) style of Disney and Pixar films. The Secret of Kells looked good, but this takes it to another level, with some wonderfully realised fantasy worlds and creatures as well as gorgeously composed ‘real world’ settings. Every frame is a work of art and feels wholly original (although it shares stylistic similarities with Kells).
Some have compared this to the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli and I can see why. The fantastical world is incredibly rich and imaginatively developed, taking elements from Irish folklore that are little known outside of the country. Like in most of Miyazaki’s films, the villain isn’t straight up evil either. Macha has her reasons for turning people to stone and it makes for some fascinating moral questions. She takes away people’s bad feelings, allowing them to sleep calmly without worries. People need these emotions though and without them they can’t function, a message shared by the equally excellent animated film from this year, Inside Out.
This message spills over into the human story too, which allows the core drama to affect and engross as much as the fantastical elements. This fact meant that I preferred this to a couple of Miyazaki’s films (which is a bold statement for me as I’m a huge fan). I re-watched Howl’s Moving Castle recently and although the world created is a joy to behold, I found the story a little over complicated so the film didn’t satisfy as a whole. Song of the Sea keeps things a little more simple, so you never lose track of what’s happening or what’s important. This helps deliver a moving finale, which I must admit had me in tears (although I have a habit of getting emotional with many animated films).
Like Studio Ghibli’s work, the film is devoid of classic Disney-isms like the comedy sidekick or big musical numbers (although there are a few Irish folk songs that play a big part). There are no forced attempts to make the film more adult friendly either by loading it with in-jokes or pop-culture references. Moore and team stay focused on the story and the world they’re creating, so adults and children alike will be drawn in by the film as a whole, not through any added gimmicks.
Perhaps the central story concepts aren’t the most original and it’s easy to see where the film is going, but it’s a magical journey I’d be more than happy to enjoy again and again.
* On an added note, my 2 year old daughter seemed transfixed too. The film is a PG, probably due to the tragic elements to the story, but there’s nothing too frightening or objectionable for younger children that I picked up on.
Song of the Sea is out on 9th November in the UK on Blu-Ray and DVD, released by Studiocanal. Both English and Irish Gaelic languages are available on the discs. I watched the English version on Blu-Ray and it looked and sounded magnificent.
There are a few special features too. There’s an audio commentary from director Tom Moore, which I haven’t had chance to listen to yet, but I will at some point soon. You also get featurettes looking behind the scenes and at the art and animation. These are a bit basic, but it’s fascinating to see the stages the film went through and lets you further admire the beautiful look of the film.