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.