I had almost little expectations going into this film. I’m not saying I didn’t expect it to be good. I just didn’t know what to expect. I was aware of this film only from hype. That’s not a lot to go on enough for me to get excited about a film. I mostly knew it from the fact that the style looked exactly like that of Secret of The Kells. I still haven’t seen that film, but I think I will be seeing it soon after seeing Song of the Sea. I collect favorite animation studios like Smurfs collect Smurfberries. Disney, Pixar, Ghibli, Laika, Aardman. All amazing. Song of the Sea was my introduction to Irish animation Studio, Cartoon Saloon. It is a discovery I am glad I made.
This film has a distinct style that screams uniqueness while simultaneously being a living moving reference to so much animation before it. There were times I was reminded of Rakin Bass films like The Last Unicorn or The Hobbit. Sometimes I thought of Miyazaki’s Ghibli films. Sometimes I thought of Don Bluth films like Secret of NIMH, or TV shows like Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends or Samurai Jack. What really surprised me was how often I though about video games like Legend of Zelda or Limbo too. More than anything else, Song of the Sea looks like a living storybook. Every shot looks like an elaborate illustration in some children’s book. I had avoided this film, and its predecessor, because I was afraid the story could not hold up to that style. You can make something look amazing but falls short of being charming. I was found dead wrong in the first few seconds.
The film starts out with a mythical story being told to a young boy by his mother. Magic and mystery is established in peotic song right off the bat. But sadly, in almost typical animated feature fashion, a tragedy occurs and a parent is lost. The story is then brought up to the time in which the film takes place, six tears later. We have Ben, Saoirse, and their father Celebrating Saoirse’s birthday, with Grandmother visiting. It is a sad day for all because it is the same anniversary of loss of the children’s mother. Soon enough, we find that Saoirse is much more than she seems. She has never spoken a word, but when she finds a special coat locked away in the attic, she rushes out to see to play with the seals that live near their lighthouse. Saoirse magically transforms into a seal and frolics in her new form. When she is finished, she washes ashore where she is met be her panicked grandmother.
Horrified at what she sees as a near death accident in a dangerous environment, she takes the children to the city to live with her. But they do not stay for long. Both children have their reasons for running away to get back to their lighthouse, father, and to their real home. Almost as soon as they depart, the magical world that lies just beneath our mundane world shows itself. This film gets bonus points from me for taking place during Halloween, my favorite holiday and the reason the supernatural world is so active during the time of this tale. The adventure really begins here. Ben finds out that all the tales of myth and magic his mother has told him are all true and that young mute Saoirse is the key to saving faeries trapped in stone by an old misguided crone. The journey moves alone like any fairy tale, with the kids meeting magical creature one after the next. Stories of greed, sorrow, and redemption play out along the way.
The basic story is not particularly new. This formula is just as old as animation itself. However, the charming package in which this story is presented really gives it the edge it needs to be special. The settings are almost all in nature. There are long panning shots of the Irish countryside. Glens, wells, sea sides, under brush, and or course the sea itself are all beautifully animated. Even the few urban scenes are just that, very urban. The children themselves are textbook protagonists. Ben is naturally resentful of his sister. His mother died giving birth to her. He is charged with looking after her, even though her curiosity is always getting her into trouble. She take his things and is the very reason he is taken away from his home.
Now, I myself, am a big brother. I was almost angry with Ben for not appreciating his sister. This is a Pixar favorite formula, a loaner who must begrudgingly side with a character who annoys him to accomplish his goal. Up, Finding Nemo, Toy Story, all have a character dynamic like this. As the film goes along though, He fulfills his role as big bro and protector of his magical sibling. Saoirse herself is an endearing mysterious character, ever inquisitive and always eager to be supportive. They are good kids. You root for them. They get in real danger, and you fear for them. When they succeed, you cheer for them.
As much as I felt this film expertly references and is built upon so many animation and fantasy storytelling styles, it has some unique aspects to it. For one, it wasn’t afraid to have things like “No humans! Feck off!” written on a fairy’s door in it. The use of Irish dialect in the songs is enchanting. The scenes of the father drinking into the night in a pub, sad about his lost wife, was also something beautiful and somber and not usually covered in animated films. It was very obvious that the film makers wanted to follow up their first big hit right. I will need to view Secret of the Kells before I could say for sure if they accomplish that, but if it is half as charming as this one was, it is a film I need to see. Charming is a word that came up a few times in this review. That is because that is the most accurate one to describe it. Song of the Sea is an infectious adventure with fun and deep characters, stunning yet simplistic visuals in this world of 3D cgi, and a well developed love letter to fairy tales everywhere.