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Song of the Sea

Sarah Ward

This bittersweet animated affair is a feature to look at, listen to and luxuriate in for all ages.
Song of the Sea

How does a child cope when the arrival of a new sibling coincides with the loss of their mother, and causes an unrelenting wave of grief to wash over their father? It's a question few would want to contemplate, let alone an animated movie made with younger audiences in mind. Of course, refusing to shy away from the less happy parts of life is what some studios have made their fortunes and fame from, courtesy of all-ages offerings that embrace darker sentiments even as they spin fantastical tales. The Academy Award-nominated Song of the Sea may stem from an Irish outfit with only four features to their name, rather than from the likes of Pixar or Studio Ghibli; however the tender, thoughtful film belongs in the same company as the greatest efforts from those better-known organisations. 

Ten-year-old Ben (David Rawle, TV's Moone Boy) still feels the sting of absence six years after his sister, Saoirse (newcomer Lucy O'Connell), was born and his mother, Bronagh (singer Lisa Hannigan), disappeared into the sea. His attitude conveys his resentment, though the silent girl dotes on him regardless, searching for the connection their kindly lighthouse-keeper father, Conor (Brendan Gleeson, Calvary), is still too bereaved to give. After Saoirse stumbles upon a hidden coat that imbues seal-like qualities, their grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan, Life's a Breeze) decides that an island off the coast of Ireland is no place for kids, spiriting them off to an existence of order and discipline in Dublin. Finding their way back to Conor becomes the twosome's obsession, with Saoirse's new gifts – and a parting present left by Bronagh – instrumental in their journey. 

In Tomm Moore's second feature after fellow Oscar contender The Secret of Kells, as co-written by the director and Will Collins (My Brothers), the pint-sized protagonists' quest turns into an adventure. As they trample over hills, through forests and via underground waterways, the siblings come across creatures seemingly summoned from legends told to Ben by his mother, their interactions filled with wonder and wisdom. Ancient Irish folklore acts as inspiration, the heartfelt film both drawing upon and interweaving magical fables as it relates an account of children trying to find their place in the world in more ways than one. Detours abound, exploring facets of Celtic culture and fleshing out the rite-of-passage narrative.

Outside of the use of traditional tales, there may be little that seems unique about Song of the Sea's equally wistful and whimsical story; however the sincere saga that it spins never appears a formulaic affair, sticking to its purposeful venture through thematically textured territory as it does. Indeed, as it accepts Ben's bitterness but never discredits his character for it, adopts the same approach for Conor's mourning and Granny's control, and features more imaginative beings similarly adorned with both negative and positive traits, the film proves an emotionally astute and complex work. 

Trust Moore and his animation team to find a visual style that complements the narrative so completely that no other rendering seems possible; what comes across as atypical in the story is mirrored in the eye-catching, illuminated design as well. Sans any excursions into the third dimension, the movie's hand-drawn, water-coloured aesthetics combine the classic look of cartoons from years gone by with more artistic, organic sketches, shapes and splotches, all tinted in bluer, greyer tones than perhaps expected to match the prevailing mood. The sweeping, Gaelic-sung soundtrack adds another element to what becomes a troika of pitch-perfect expression, a sense of enchantment heard as well as seen and felt – and with ample dashes of melancholy too. Indeed, it is the movie's commitment to conveying the bittersweet side of life and love, be it through drawings, tunes or myths, that makes Song of the Sea a feat to look at, listen to and luxuriate in for all ages.

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Song of the Sea
Director: Tomm Moore
Ireland | Denmark | Belgium | Luxembourg | France, 2014, 93 mins

Revelation Perth International Film Festival
2–12 July, 2015


About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay