Song and the Sea
At the most recent Academy Awards, Tomm Moore’s latest animated film was once again the dark horse candidate for Best Animated Feature. Like The Secret of Kells, Moore’s debut work in 2009, Song of the Sea manages the rare feat of being one of the most gorgeous animated movies made recently and possessing a poignant tale of letting go of resentment and accepting uncertainty in life. Irish director Tomm Moore is one animation’s most talented artists, and I can hardly wait to see his future works. His sophomore feature is a movie that anyone of any age will enjoy immensely.
Like Kells, Sea takes inspiration from Irish mythology and focuses on children growing up and learning to face their fears in a world that is both beautiful and dangerous. Sea, however, surpasses Kells by constructing a thicker plot that is more capable of keeping audiences in suspense and raising the stakes, resulting in a more complex narrative. Eleven year old Ben is stuck in a dreary life on an island lighthouse, unsure of why and where his mother Bronagh disappeared to. She left behind Saoirse, Ben’s new sister, but Ben can only view her as the painful reminder that his mother is gone, while their father Conor remains mired in melancholy. Forcibly moved to the city by their joyless and domineering Granny, Ben and Saoirse escape and stumble upon the discovery of fairies, gradually learning that all of the stories Ben heard from Bronagh are actually true.
Bronagh and Saoirse are selkies, humans who transform into seals in water. Saoirse being separated from the coat that lets her become a seal is just one example of the suppression of magic as an allegory on suppression of love and feelings. In a modernizing world, less and less room is available for fairies and other magical beings, and they are disappearing because of the machinations of the witch Macha. Ingeniously, the film makes Macha a supernatural parallel to Granny, while the weeping warrior Mac Lir is a representation of grieving Conor. Not for nothing do the same voice actors portray the realistic and magical counterparts. Ben and Saoirse’s journey to return home is consequently a sophisticated commentary on collectively helping their family let of pain and be happy again, while embarking on a thrilling fantasy adventure that shows how much the film understands the imaginations and thoughts of children.
There’s no true villain in this movie; the most menacing challenge for the characters is overcoming the fear of chaos and mystery that drives people to lose their emotions and be cruel to one another. Ben matures by learning to love and accept Saoirse instead of placing his sadness and hatred on her, and Macha realizes that her well-meaning endeavor to prevent negative emotions like fear and sadness from spreading has suffocated the magical world she sought to protect. Song of the Sea tells viewers that hiding and suppressing negativity is a poor solution for dealing with grief and loss, and drives this point home by featuring feelings trapped in bottles and fairies transformed into stone. Growth comes from accepting positive and negative aspects of life, which the film brilliantly illustrates by juxtaposing Ben and Saoirse’s realistic struggles to find their way home with their encounters with magic and saving Saoirse’s life by reuniting her with her selkie coat.
Even if it were not for its complex and moving story, Song of the Sea would stand out for being one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful movies of this decade. Rarely does one see so much care and work invested in the animation. Colors are appropriately bright during joyful and comedic scenes, and subdued during frightening and tragic scenes. When Saoirse swims with seals, the ocean, the wiggling animals, and the splashing waves are infinitely more immersive than Avatar or any gaudy 3D film. Details abound in every scene and invite repeated viewings to enjoy everything, from a nest of badgers in a field and children trick-or-treating to wallpaper in a room and lines on statues. Those particularly well-versed in Irish mythology will catch subtle references that demonstrate how profoundly respectful the movie is about its inspirations. Viewers unfamiliar with these myths may have some difficulty following certain plot developments and characters. However, this isn’t a significant barrier to appreciating the film. The film is never uproariously funny, but has a quiet wit to it, and gives its characters, including children, multifaceted personalities and motivations. Rambunctious Ben develops bravery and respect for Saoirse, who, despite being mute for most of the movie, communicates countless emotions through her gestures and facial expressions and is immediately endearing. Conor and Granny evolve from being misguided guardians to being involved figures. Also meriting praise is the soundtrack, which makes integral use of traditional Irish melodies that help advance the story and elevates the drama and tension throughout the film.
In a world with more justice, and no Disney or Pixar as competition, Song of the Sea would be collecting every award that comes its way. It’s a shame that due to its obscure origins that Moore hasn’t won an Oscar yet. With the recent positive buzz surrounding Sea that is winning more attention and fame for Moore and his studio Cartoon Saloon, he hopefully will be earning more accolades in the near future. It’s a bold statement to make at such an early stage, but Tomm Moore may be the new animator blessed with the same talent and uniqueness of the recently-retired Hayao Miyazaki. Moore has artistic gifts that are creating some of the best movies of today, and it is a joy to follow what hopefully is the early part of a fruitful and illustrious career.