Tomm Moore | 94 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg & France / English | PG / PG
The second feature from director Tomm Moore and his pan-European team of animators (after the excellent, Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells) sees ten-year-old Ben (voiced by Moone Boy’s David Rawle) growing up in a lighthouse off the coast of Ireland, with just his dad (Brendan Gleeson), his dog and best friend Cú, and his mute little sister Saoirse, after their mother disappeared on the night Saoirse was born. When Saoirse discovers a coat that turns her into a seal (as you do — this doesn’t come as out-of-the-blue in the film as I’ve made it here) and she washes up on the beach, their visiting grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) insists she takes the kids to Dublin for a better life. Less than impressed at having to desert his father, his home, and most especially his dog, Ben escapes and, with Saoirse in tow, sets off to find his way home. However, it soon becomes apparent that Saoirse’s new-found transformative skills are of greater importance, and the survival of the entirety of Irish folkloric creatures depends on her getting home in time. Unfortunately, the witch Macha and her owl minions have other ideas…
There are quite a few different elements in the mix with Song of the Sea, as you can probably tell from that overlong plot description. On the surface, it’s an adventure story, as Ben and Saoirse — soon joined by Cú, too — trek across Ireland encountering various creatures and obstacles. It’s also a fantasy, thanks to said creatures, reconfiguring folk legends into a modern context where they exist on the periphery of the world, visible if only people would look. That’s one subtext. Other prominent ones include issues of grief and family: Ben has a realistically fractious sibling relationship with his sister, but the motivator for that is clearly resentment towards her for appearing the night his beloved mother left. Their father, too, is hamstrung by his grief, struggling to move on from his wife’s disappearance and fully engage with the world. His kids are his only connection, Saoirse in particular, but his mother makes him realise that clinging to them is damaging their lives too… or is it?
This depth of emotion and, if you like, thematic consideration probably marks Song of the Sea out over The Secret of Kells in some respects. Certainly, there seems to be a broad understanding that this is the better film, if only by a half-step; a more mature, complex work. I’ll be the dissenting voice, though, because while I did like Song of the Sea, I didn’t think it was as strong an overall experience as Kells. The problem perhaps lies in its episodic structure, which pings us from encounter to encounter. They’re connected but also self-contained, and at times it feels like there’s another one before we can get to the climax. For me, a bit of added speed would have helped things: kicking into gear faster (the first act goes on a little too long), trimming back each episode; overall, managing to speed the film up by maybe ten minutes would be to its benefit.
Maybe I’m wrong, though. There’s nothing specific that needs to be lost, no one scene that drags, just a sense that things could get a wriggle on. Perhaps in this respect the film would better reward repeated viewings? The realistic, thoughtful depiction of the main characters; the well-imagined, history-dense world; the weighty themes that are handled with a gentle touch — all are factors that can, and do, elevate the film. Don’t get me wrong: this is a cut above your average animated adventure. I just didn’t enjoy it as much as The Secret of Kells.
Talking of thematic depth, however, this interview with Moore from The Telegraph is a must-read. To pull a particular highlight:
Moore wanted to stay true to the melancholic selkie myths. In the end, a series of test-screenings with his primary schoolteacher wife’s class helped him find the sweet spot.
“Those kids are way more intelligent than adult audiences,” he explains. The notes that older viewers gave him, he says, all tried to pinpoint flaws in the film’s dream logic: “They thought they could outwit the story, rather than go along with it.”
Moore’s young test audience, on the other hand, was more concerned with the relationships, and as a result of their feedback – they thought an exchange in which Ben tells his sister he hates her overstepped the mark, for instance – he dialled certain scenes down a bit. That’s a preteen audience asking for more subtlety.
Lesson: we train viewers to be less-intelligent film-viewing adults with dumbed-down kids’ movies. Anyway:
For more positives, Song of the Sea’s animation and design is at least as strong as it was in Moore’s previous film. There’s the ‘house style’ flattened, animated storybook look; a description which could sound like criticism but absolutely is not. Some very beautiful scenes are evoked, meaning that at the very least there’s always imagery to tide you over. I’d list some favourites, but we’d be talking about most of the film. That said, the depiction of a run-down, smoggy Dublin stands out as something different from the countryside idylls of Kells and the rest of the locales in Song of the Sea, but it’s not exactly “beautiful”. Rather, look to the island home of our heroes, a tall rock surrounded by the blue sea; the home of the glowing-eyed long-haired Seanachai (the moment when it suddenly turns around in the montage after Saoirse uses her coat for the first time is my favourite shot in the film, a little sliver of fantasy imagery that magnificently teases what’s to come); or the small sanctuary surrounded by a field of stinging nettles — again, a kind of gentle, on-the-edge-of-the-real-world fantasy that quite appeals to me. The fact the countryside is littered with half-hidden stone figures, which we know to be frozen magical begins, is another nice touch; especially as they’re often surrounded by human litter, the analogy (as I see it) being both that people exist around them but don’t even see them, and also that, presumably through our modern disbelief, we’ve thrown these legends out with our trash.
Even as I write, I’m talking myself round to liking Song of the Sea even more than I did on first viewing — and that was quite a lot, albeit coloured by my perception that I didn’t like it as much as The Secret of Kells. If you enjoyed Moore’s earlier film, this unquestionably merits seeking out (if you haven’t already, of course; I mean, I did). If you haven’t seen Kells, well, you’ve so far missed a treat; and now you’re missing two.
Song of the Sea is in UK cinemas from today.