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Song of the Sea (2014)

Winding through a landscape populated with fairies, giants turned to stone, selkies and painfully grounded humans, Song of the Sea delights in blurring the lines between the commonplace and fantastical. Following studio Cartoon Saloon’s Oscar-nominated d├ębut Secret of Kells, director Tomm Moore’s second film with his team at Cartoon Saloon is an altogether more personal piece. He has returned to the rich history of Celtic folklore, and found it lurking in the cracks of a broken family.

Part folk tale, part family drama, the story is refreshingly simple. Ben (David Rawle) lives with widowed father Conor (Brendan Gleeson) and mute little sister Saoirse in a lighthouse. Ben prefers the simple companionship of his sheepdog Cu to Saoirse, for whom in a complicated ball of emotion, he blames for the loss of their mother. He clings to the vague, magical memories of her songs and stories as comfort from the cold reception from his dad. When curt and stubborn Grandma (Fionnula Flanagan) arrives, she knows there is only one way to fix the family: take the children to Dublin, leaving Conor, and Ben’s beloved Cu behind, to recuperate. The night before their departure, however, Saoirse stumbles across hidden corners in their old lighthouse, where old family secrets lie awaiting discovery

Upon their arrival in Dublin, Ben is immediately determined to return, and taking Saoirse with him, slips into the fantastical, rich history of myths and legends lurking on their path back home. There is something so enchanting about the way that a trio of stone fairies are discovered by the siblings in an overgrown roundabout in the middle of town. This dialogue between the real world and the old world of legend doesn’t just lend itself to wondrous imagery, but also to ideas that hold real weight and are the driving forces in the film.

Moore established the studio’s approach as being proud of its Irish origins, honouring it's folklore and culture, whilst technically taking influence from 50s American animation, Japanese anime and ancient Celtic art. Song of the Sea employs these qualities, and weaves them together in a compelling and original fashion. Using every opportunity to take full advantage of the animated medium, the film delights in telling story through shapes and symbols. Father, always hunched, sometimes over a Guinness in a dingy pub, has his sorrow echoed by a giant rock that lies offshore, curled over in an identical manner as it bears the battering waves. Details like this are typical of the history found in every corner of the frame, such as the fleeting sense of religion, be it as a framed photograph of Christ hanging in Grandma’s house in the background, or an old wishing well laden with trinkets like a shrine to some wiser, older power. This healing power of stories is one that Ben and Saoirse begin to rediscover.

Such resonance weaves throughout the film, and demonstrates a devotion to theme shared with the best of children’s literature. Moore is not in the business of talking down to his audience. As Ben and Saoirse travel deeper into the past, the world grows ever more fantastical, but, crucially, not at the expense of the human story. Ben moves with the steely and passionate inconsistencies of primary-school boy, and Saoirse with the quiet, observant and playful demeanour of a real toddler coming of school-age. Everyone is presented as the flawed, complex creatures humans are in reality. As the background art enchants with wondrous colour and texture, the character animation is commendably reserved, and the excellent work of animators who breathe life into the simple designs do so using behaviour that hints each character being the mere tip of a human iceberg.

The film shines when its fantastical events, in particular the curt and stubborn Owl Witch (voiced also by Fionnula Flanagan), bear uncanny echoes to Ben and Saoirse’s own lives. Her obsession with “eliminating suffering” is an achingly honest mirror of Grandma, who strives, to the point of further damage, to heal. There is a robustness to the deceptive simplicity of Song of the Sea that is reminiscent of early Disney works, or children’s films made by Miyazaki, such as My Neighbour Totoro or Ponyo. These comparisons are ultimately airy, though, as Moore and his team have created a unique world with a distinguished voice. The comparison holds in as much as Moore and his team have clearly crafted this film to last. Indeed, Moore posits himself that hand-drawn animation in itself has a timeless quality that is impervious to age.

How much harm do we do to ourselves and our loved ones in striving to do good for them? What place do allegories or folklore have in a modern life? These are the sorts of thoughts Song of the Sea leaves you to ponder, to say nothing of the technically breathtaking art and animation. There have been few recent children's films with such ambition.

It’s tempting to refer to works such as this as ‘whimsical’, but doing so suggests a degree of care and thoughtfulness that Moore clearly exceeds.

SONG OF THE SEA is released in Cinemas in the UK and Ireland on July 10th via STUDIOCANAL and is out now on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital in the US.