A pure flight of imagination which tells a very grounded story of grief and loss.
I think animation might just be the perfect medium in which to tell a fairytale. The vibrant colours, the exaggerated expressions which are more readable for children, the relative ease of drawing as opposed to filming things like spirits and magic…they all lend themselves to stories which present truths and lessons about the world around us in a form that captures the imagination and stirs the sense of adventure inherent in both children and adults.
Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea is one such story: a magical realist fairytale which contains no small number of fantastical creatures and landscapes. It is a pure flight of the imagination, but one that takes to the skies in order to tell a very grounded and affecting story about grief and trauma. There are all kinds of important lessons to be found within this movie about how human beings deal with emotions (including one beautiful scene in which literally bottled up emotions are cathartically released), and they’re just as applicable to children as they are to adults.
The level of emotional and narrative nuance in Song of the Sea can’t help but recall the work of Studio Ghibli, which is a clear influence here. This is a movie as steeped in Irish folklore and mythology as Ghibli films are in their Japanese counterpart: Gaelic songs, dusky pubs, Yeats poems, and a fantastic soundtrack with many elements of traditional Irish folk music.
But Song of the Sea has a visual and production style all of its own. Where Ghibli films are often very dynamic, Song of the Sea is graceful and highly composed. Visually it looks something like a cross between Gustav Klimt and a runic cave painting, full of swirling shapes, patterns, and flowing streams of golden blue. Many of the drawn backgrounds are 3D spaces flattened into a 2D plane, which creates a wonderfully disorientating and abstracted effect.
I found certain sequences within this film really just awe-inspiring: Saorsie’s midnight swim with the seals, the descent into the holy well and the ancient fairy’s nest of flowing hair, riding the spirit-dogs to the lighthouse, the approach to the old witches house, the entire ending sequence…Song of the Sea continually surprised and amazed me throughout its relatively brief ninety minute runtime.
My only teeny weeny complaint is that some of the voice acting on the incidental characters was a bit lacking, but all the main characters were very effectively brought to life. Aside from that, I have nothing but gushing praise for Song of the Sea and can’t wait to see where Tomm Moore and co go next. I’d really like to see them go in a completely new direction and get out from under the somewhat daunting shadow of Ghibli influence – I think they’re more than talented enough to do it. But even if they don’t, Song of the Sea is a unique triumph all of its own.