The year of 2014 was rather disappointing for fans of animated movies. In the beginning, everything was awesome with The LEGO Movie, but that was it. With the exception of The Wind Rises (which I have considerable reservations about) and How to Train Your Dragon 2, there wasn't much to recommend. Now Song of the Sea finally puts an end to this dry spell. It is the difficult second album for the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, but they master the challenge with flying colours. The film delivers a beautifully told story, despite never quite reaching the magic or the impact of their 2009-debut The Secret of Kells.
Comparing Tomm Moore with the genius of Hayao Miyazaki after only a couple of films is premature, but there are commonalities. Like the now comatose Studio Ghibli, he finds inspiration in folklore that surrounds him, in the local legends and gives them a modern twist. The fact that hardly anyone outside of Ireland (or Japan) is familiar with these traditions is of no importance. It actually adds a certain mystical/spiritual quality to the film which we can marvel at, even if we don't understand it. Song of the Sea introduces us to Selkies (seals that can transform into humans), the Sea God Mac Lir, the Great Seanachai and a terrifying owl-witch.
One of these mystical Selkies is the young Saoirse. On the night of her birth, her mother disappeared without a trace leaving the girl in the custody of her father Connor (Brendan Gleeson) and her older brother Ben (David Rawle). Together with their loyal dog, they live in a lighthouse on a tiny island off the Irish coast. The absence of a mother figure weighs heavily on the family, but they try to make the best of it. On her sixth birthday, Saoirse discovers a magical shell. It had been entrusted to Ben by the mother before she left, but as soon as Saoirse picks it up, extraordinary things begin to happen. Subsequently, the siblings have to go on an epic adventure in order to save the magical creatures, who have been turned into stone by a witch.
Song of the Sea plays to a slightly younger audience then Kells, but there is a lot to enjoy for the parents as well. The story takes a while to get going, as a large chunk of the first thirty minutes take place in a more realistic world. The character development is a bit slow, but as soon as the adventure starts properly, the film immediately transforms into a gripping piece of storytelling. Despite having no magical attributes, the film's primary focus remains on Ben. He is not special, he isn't "the one"; he has no powers other than his exuberant enthusiasm. Saoirse is the extraordinary one of the siblings. Telling the story from this character's point of view is both unusual and interesting. It's okay to be normal, which is a positive message we don't see often in cinema.
In terms of visuals, the film is somewhat simpler than its predecessor, but there is enormous beauty in its images. The dominating shape is the circle. Time and time again, the picture rests for a couple of seconds on a still image resembling a Hindu or Buddhist mandala. The symmetry and the perfection of the circular form have a calming effect and give the visuals a structure. The soundtrack, a mixture of Bruno Coulais’ original compositions and of Irish traditional music lead by the band Kíla. revolves around a simple melody, which will burn itself into your subconscious for days. All these elements come together and make Song of the Sea one of the year's most gorgeous, tender and moving films for young and old. And it has Irish accents! Go see it now. Go on, go on.