Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon had already proved themselves with the beautiful, well-received debut The Secret of Kells, a film I fell soundly in love with back in 2010. In 2014 I listed Moon Man in my annual roundup of film highlights. Song of the Sea, a story of a boy and his sister questing their way home through Irish mythology, continues their winning streak.
Song of the Sea is a little harder going than Kells and a little less eccentric than Moon Man, touching upon death, depression, alcoholism, memory and loss, though without ever wallowing or feeling morose. Most of the story is seen through the eyes of the children, Ben and Saoirse, so the adult themes, while always present, are never overbearing.
The story itself is straightforward. Separated from their emotionally-distant and clearly-struggling father by a domineering grandmother, Ben and Saoirse embark on an Odyssey-like adventure to return home to their father. From there, the film takes a leisurely tour through Irish folklore — Mac Lir the giant, Macha the Owl Witch, Selkies, Faeries, the Great Seanachai — and while this may all resonate more if you’ve grown up around those myths and legends, I found myself gripped regardless, all the time wanting to hear and learn more.
The education-by-stealth nature of the story is one thing, but where Song of the Sea stands out most is visually; the film is astonishingly, uncommonly beautiful with art direction that near defies description. This isn’t Ghibli, naturalistic and bold, nor is it Pixar, all smooth, wide-eyed CGI and complicated hair-rendering algorithms. Song of the Sea is hand-crafted, rough, radiant, rich and deep, a collage of layered cut-outs and unnatural perspectives glowing deeply from within; the only comparison I can draw is with this studio’s previous work, particularly Kells, also directed by this film’s Tomm Moore. The film’s score is also worth mentioning, with original music by composer Bruno Coulais (Kells, Coraline) and Kila, an Irish folk music group.
If I sound like I’m gushing, it’s because I am. Song of the Sea is a delight, and demands repeat viewings.