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Song Of The Sea (2014): Movies That Made The Decade

We continue to take a look back at our favourite animated feature films of 2010-2019 in our series highlighting The Movies That Made The Decade.

Cartoon Saloon first made waves in the animation world with their debut feature The Secret Of Kells Earning the Kilkenny, Ireland based studio worldwide attention and their first Oscar nomination, it was quite the calling card. But it was with their second feature Song Of The Sea that, arguably, they truly arrived.

The second film saw Kells co-helmer Tomm Moore make his solo directorial debut. It was eagerly anticipated by animation lovers long before release, thanks to the release of a proof of concept trailer back in 2011. By the time it finally arrived, it had begun picking up plaudits and strong word of mouth from the festival circuit culminating in a second Oscar nomination for the studio.

The work of Cartoon Saloon is frequently described as a sort of European Studio Ghibli. But the truth is that Song Of The Sea's animation is as far away from the delicate watercolour backgrounds and fluid character animation of the Japanese studio as it is from the glossy high-end CG of the major Hollywood studios. The visuals are highly distinctive and stylised.

The art style of The Secret Of Kells was heavily influenced by the illuminated art found in historical texts and most obviously The Book Of Kells- the book that inspired the film in the first place. This was blended with soft and cartoonish character designs that are depicted in what has gone on to become the house-style. Song Of The Sea carried much of this forward and worked in elements of traditional Celtic and Gaelic art, with spirals and circles proving a strong motif throughout. The lush greens of Kells colour pallette are joined by blues for the water-based sequences and muddy browns and greys for the more mundane everyday life scenes.

Song Of The Sea is that rare animated movie that looks exactly like its concept art. The gorgeous picturebook aesthetic means that you can take virtually any frame and blow it up and it would make a beautiful print for your wall. No wonder the artbook was so eagerly anticipated.

The second films swaps the Ireland of Kells' semi-mythical past, for a more modern one, bringing in elements of traditional Irish folklore into a more relatable setting.  Will Collins' script- based on an original story by the director- incorporates traditional mythological creatures such as Selkie, faeries and giants magical realist style into more of a contemporary Irish world of the 1980s

The story follows brother and sister Ben and Saoirse, who live on a remote Irish island with their lighthouse keeper father Conor. Four years after the disappearance of their mother (on the night of Saoirse's birth) they are sent to live with their Grandmother in the city. Only it turns out that Saoirse is no ordinary little girl- she's actually a Selkie, a mythical being that can turn into a seal. Together the siblings- along with faithful dog Cu- must set off on a perilous adventure to save the faerie world.

It's not hard to see where the Ghibli comparisons come from, and Cartoon Saloon are heavily influenced by them, and ib particular the works of Hayao Miyazaki. But the influences run much more than skin-deep. Moore told his team that My Neighbour Totoro was to be a key touchstone on Song. The sense of wonder felt throughout, for both the natural and fantastic feels very Miyazaki, as does the sense that the spirit world is just beneath the surface. One sequence in particular, with Ben and Saoirse racing through the countryside riding on ghost dogs, recalls the Catbus sequence in Totoro, as well as the Walking In The Air sequence in Anglo-Irish production The Snowman, or the flight sequence in ET.

Yet for all the eye-catching visuals and memorable set-pieces, there's an impressive subtlety at work here. There's a couple of larger-than-life characters, but for the most part, the character animation is very underplayed and realistic, void of the extremely cartoony action that's typical of most western animation.  Its also true of the storytelling, which trusts its audience enough to not feel the need to spell everything out. The 80s setting is very subtly hinted at through Ben's walkman and 3D glasses, there's no hitting you over the head with it Stranger Things style.  It also trusts its younger audience members to be able to cope with some sophisticated and adult themes. It deals with things like grief, resentment, guilt and loss and paints a complex and non-sugar-coated portrait of family relationships. There's humour too, but it never undercuts the drama or is overplayed and is used fairly sparingly. From a gut-punch opening to the bittersweet ending, its a moving tale.

As the title hints, music also plays a big part in the film. There are no Disney-style big musical numbers but the score and soundtrack are beautiful and integrated into the plot. The song passed down from Ben and Saoirse's mother becomes key to saving the day. Much like the film as a whole, the soundtrack blends Irish tradition with something more modern to wonderful effect.

Song Of The Sea thoroughly cemented Tomm Moore's place as one of the foremost talents working in animation today and Cartoon Saloon as one of Europe's most successful studios. They would go on to a third Oscar nomination (for Nora Twomey's equally wonderful The Breadwinner)  and partner with Apple and Netflix for their upcoming projects- Moore's Wolfwalkers and Twomey's My Father's Dragon respectively. Their future is looking incredibly bright- but they're going to have to go a long way to beat this.