Song of the Sea (2014)

Poster for Song of the Sea

Tomm Moore previously directed The Secret of Kells with Nora Towney, and I thought it was an excellent, idiosyncratic animated fantasy exploring Irish themes. In Song of the Sea he has created another idiosyncratic animated fantasy, and this time he delves even deeper into Celtic Irish mythology and folklore, giving us the story of a selkie. This is a family-friendly movie that focuses on two young children, a brother and a sister. While it’s family-friendly, it does open up with the loss of the children’s mother, although it happens off-screen and while the loss is felt throughout, it isn’t confronted directly until the very end.

Because of that loss (are all selkie stories about the loss of a mother?), and because of the threat to the well-being of  the sister, Saoirse, this is a serious and ultimately very moving story, but it’s told with a great deal of humor. Along with their own problems, the children discover that the creatures of Faerie are in danger of being turned to stone, but their interactions with the fairies are largely humorous. The brother’s disgruntlement and impatience with his six-year-old sister is also very funny and sweet. The two children are strongly characterized, and their relationship drives the story as they move from their home in a lighthouse to a big city on the mainland and then across the countryside back to the sea.

The animation is amazing. I don’t know how to describe the style except to say that it’s very artificial in a cartoony sort of way and has the outward appearance of simplicity, particularly in the shapes of the characters and objects. But the simplicity is deceptive, and the patterns created with the simple shapes are quite complex. There’s a great deal of symmetry in the design, but there’s also a lot of Celtic knotwork and other traditional design that gives it a labyrinthine feel. The character’s expressions are subtle and expressive.

The world that Moore and his animators create is a magical place, and the quest story allows them to explore many nooks and crannies of it, from the eerie ocean floor to the secret wells and caverns in the Irish countryside. It takes place in the contemporary world, but everywhere are doorways into the world of Faerie and the old Irish gods. It’s a world of stories told in song, and there’s a lot of beautiful Irish music in the film as well. Ultimately we’re given the song of the sea, and some things are restored and some things remain lost. The ocean gives, and the ocean takes away. There’s a primal feel to this magical world, and Moore is doing something that feels personal and mythic, historical and otherworldly, all at the same time. In that, it reminds me of Miyazaki, which is the highest praise I can think of.


Song of the Sea (2014) — 4 Comments

  1. Glenn and I saw this with Denys this afternoon. I see what you mean about that Miyazaki feeling; it’s there in the way that Moore creates more incidental countryside than absolutely necessary, for the sheer joy and beauty of it, the richness of the whole thing. Three fox kits, three badger kits, just because they can be there, not for anything the plot needs, and muttering stepping stones, and a television antenna on Macha’s house though she has only a radio, not a TV.

    It’s eligible for Hugo nomination, I note, and Hugo noms don’t close until Tuesday.

    • Great stuff, Kate. Thinking about it more, I realize the particular Miyazaki film it most reminds me of is Ponyo, although in that one the children aren’t siblings. Similar oceanic and otherworld themes, and the girl child who is only partly human. But in general Moore shares a sense of the natural world as sacred, and perhaps relatedly in this film shares a sense of animals as close friends of the children. Maybe the latter is standard fare for children’s films, but there’s something about the bond between the dog and the children that felt Miyazakian to me. Also that speedy night journey on the magical highway reminded me of some other anime I saw recently. Was it A Letter to Momo?

  2. My kids, ages 7 and 4, loved it right away, and we’ve rented it three times now. My 4-year old son keeps asking for Song of the Sea pajamas. Three weeks after the last viewing, he sings the songs while he’s brushing his teeth.

  3. I lament that Song of the Sea–and Book of Kells before it–was never shown close enough with enough notice so that I could see it. One of the first DVDs I bought was the Secret of Roan Innis, also about selkies. Sweet film, lovely music. In it, the young’uns leave Dublin and go to the West Coast of Ireland to their grandparents, because the air is healthier for growing kids.

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