Song of the Sea

(SFX Magazine, Future Publishing)

Song of the Sea was among the contenders for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars this February. It didn’t win, but now we can finally see it, it’s clear why it was nominated. This is a lovely, crafted film, simple-seeming yet multi-layered, drawing on myths and children’s literature, with fairy folk and a romping sheepdog.

It’s an Irish fantasy, the successor (though not sequel) to a previous Oscar nominee, The Secret of Kells, both by director Tomm Moore. Song of the Sea is about a brother and sister, ten year-old Ben and six year-old Saorise, who live with their dad (Brendan Gleeson) at a lighthouse. Saorise never speaks, but is drawn to the sea and the seals that watch her. Ben is unusual for a cartoon kid; he’s a bad brother, cruel and resentful toward the sweet-natured Saorise. Ben has more than a touch of the obnoxious Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, one of many stories echoed here.

Saorise, it’s quickly clear, is magical, drawing the kids into an adventure which takes them across the Irish countryside, into dark forests and deep wells. Among the folk they meet is a man who lives in his own giant beard and a scary witch in a hut, who’s half-owl, half monster granny. The drawing is flattened, ornamental and mysterious, with curls and crescents, tweaked perspectives and proportions. At first it can look like CBeebies fare, until you see the loving compositions in every shot, the way the images flow and fit together. Some subtleties are only clear later, such as why two fantastical characters resemble human ones in the tradition of Peter Pan.

Older viewers may find some of the story beats overfamiliar from other fantasy books and films. It takes a while to really get going; the kids’ magic journey seems to start more than once, and at first it just feels like an arbitrary quest. By the end, though, it resolves into a rich allegory for healing and atonement, for living through loss and loving what remains.