Written and directed by Irish filmmaker Tomm Moore (whose previous film, “The Secret of Kells,” was also about Celtic folklore and legends), “Song of the Sea” considers the mythological creature the selkie—a seal when in the water and a human when on land—and a number of other stories, such as Macha, the Owl Queen, and the giant Mac Lir, who cried a sea full of tears. The stories are told in poignant detail, approachable enough for children but impactful for parents, too, and no element is extraneous. There are fairies turned into stone and owls turned into soldiers and seals turned into friends, but it all fits. Moore’s vision is clear, and he gets across a menagerie of feelings in a story that is straightforward and effective.
A number of Irish myths are juxtaposed with a family story, about a young boy, Ben (voiced by David Rawle), whose mother, Bronach (voiced by Lisa Hannigan), dies while giving birth to his younger sister, Saoirse (voiced by Lucy O’Connell). The two were incredibly close, and he grew up surrounded by Bronach’s stories of Irish folklore; one of her last gifts to him was a mysterious shell that she used to play into haunting, lilting melodies. Overwhelmed with grief after his wife’s death, Ben’s father, Conor (voiced by Brendan Gleeson, of “Edge of Tomorrow”), withdraws somewhat, leaving Ben often begrudgingly responsible for Saoirse as they grow up in their lighthouse on top of a cliff in the middle of the sea. But at age 6, Saoirse still doesn’t talk; Ben’s best friend is their dog, Cú; and Conor spends some nights at a pub on the mainland, leaving the children alone.
His mother, Granny (voiced by Fionnula Flanagan), disapproves vehemently, especially one night when Saoirse steals Ben’s shell and plays it, resulting in glowing dots of light that lead her to a white coat with a hood in her mother’s things. When zipped in it, Saoirse looks like a seal—and when she swims in the water, she ends up becoming a seal, like the selkie creature. But when she washes up on the shore, soaked to the bone and sick with a cold, Granny is shocked and furious, overruling Conor and taking Ben and Saoirse to the city to live with her.
“You’re better off not thinking about that night, you know,” she says to her son of his wife’s death, but trying to erase their mother from Ben and Saoirse’s memories isn’t a very kind decision, either—so Ben rebels, deciding to find his way back home. But Saoirse’s jaunt in the ocean has set off a series of events: waking up the remaining fairies, catching the attention of the evil Owl Queen Macha, and endangering Saoirse’s own life. Whether she and Ben end up going home, and whether Ben will learn to finally love his sister during the course of the journey, takes up the rest of “Song of the Sea.”
The story is simple enough: family sadness, sibling strife, and supernatural elements that speak truth to all of Ben and Saoirse’s mother’s stories. It’s a streamlined narrative that successfully keeps the film’s pacing tight, but visually is where the film truly excels. The art direction by Adrien Merigeau is consistently envisioned: the stars glowing behind Bronach in Ben’s memories show up again when Ben and Saoirse are traveling home; the giant cliff in view of the family home ends up being the drowned giant Mac Lir, hunched over and defeated; the fluid and bright way Saoirse moves underwater, amid jellyfish and seaweed and other creatures, is contrasted with how she is weakened above ground, dragging her feet and turning grey. The visual style is most evocative in its portrayal of Ireland’s atmosphere and environment, and it fully immerses audiences in the story—the five years it spent in creative development were well spent.
There are some flaws—the film drags a bit toward the end, the selkie myth isn’t fully explained in how it differs between family members, and the conflict is almost too easily solved—but overall “Song of the Sea” is undeniably impressive. From its visual beauty to its touching narrative, it’s one of the year’s best.
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