Five years ago, Irish director Tomm Moore came seemingly out of nowhere to grab a Best Animated Feature Film nomination at the Academy Awards for his debut feature, The Secret of Kells (co-directed with Nora Twomey). Watching the film left me deeply impressed with its beautiful visuals and unique atmosphere, but I also felt that it was somewhat too deeply embedded within its local historical and folkloristic context; the screening I attended was preceded by a lecture that explained just what The Book of Kells is, something I suspect that I couldn't have understood from watching the film itself, thus missing the film's main layer of significance.
In his second feature, Song of the Sea (which is already being hyped as a strong contender for next year's Best Animated Feature Film Oscar), Moore appears to have found the right balance between a story that is deeply rooted in his country's culture and at the same time is also universally humane and touching. This story, told with the same visual beauty as Moore's previous feature, makes Song of the Sea a triumph.
At the beginning of the film, protagonist Ben is a very young child whose mother, Bronagh, teaches him the love of Irish folk tales, especially those dealing with the Selkies, the seals who turn into women. But Bronagh dies shortly after giving birth to Ben's younger sister Saoirse. Several years later, Saoirse grows into a sickly, mute child whom Ben holds a grudge against, blaming her for their mother's death. A near-accident involving Saoirse's weird behavior causes her and Ben's grandmother to take them away from their home at the lighthouse near the coast—where their grieving father still mourns the loss of their mother—to the big city, a place that Ben deeply dislikes. He comes up with a plan to run away and return to his father's house, and his sister insists on tagging along. As it turns out, both children face a mission of greater importance than simply going back home.
Song of the Sea is a fairy tale of my favorite kind—the kind that does not promote a belief in fairies, but rather treats fairies as a metaphor for the magic that exists in everyday life. The divide between modern, urban, industrialized culture and the traditional life on the seaside where nature still reigns supreme is presented in the film in a subtle enough manner that it does not feel preachy, and yet it delivers the message. Everywhere in Ireland, the film tells us, are the things that make it a magical place of natural and historical beauty, and if we look closely enough we can also see them beneath the modern surface. Moore's film does not carry an anti-modern statement but rather warns against turning our backs on tradition and what it represents, a warning perhaps best exemplified in its chief antagonist—who isn't really a bad person, just a misguided one.
This story about the beauty of tradition is gently and skillfully woven into the character drama that drives the film, which at its heart is a family story. Ben, the angry protagonist, finds solace in the stories told to him by his mother without realizing that his sister, whom he hates, is the realization of these stories; in a similar manner, Ben's father turns his back to the magic of the same stories in his grief over the loss of his wife, not realizing that this magic was a part of his wife's very essence. Though an argument can be made against the film for marginalizing its female characters to a certain extent, Song of the Sea also places these characters in an interesting context that shows how in Irish folk tales women are empowered while in the modern world they are muted and pushed aside.
Moore delivers the story with the same design style featured in The Book of Kels, which is reminiscent of illustrated children's books. Characters and landscapes are given a simple look, generally low on details, but this doesn't, in any way, imply the characters' simplicity. As in Moore's previous feature, Song of the Sea is a story told and viewed through the eyes of a young child, who sees all adults who surround him as giants, all cliffs as high mountains and all forces of nature as magical phenomenon. This view is brought to the screen beautifully in colorful and highly expressive visuals that give the film's story the feeling of a grand adventure—highlighted in a minor yet charming scene in which Ben draws a map while traveling from his home on the coast to the city with the intention of using it on his journey back. As the audience glimpses of the map, they get an idea of Ben's view of the world, in which landmarks such as "broken car" suddenly become significant monuments in their own right. It is in this single scene that the film made me fall utterly in love with it, for its ability to bring across its young protagonist's point of view so simply and yet so cleverly.
Watching Song of the Sea reminded me of several other animated works, but more than any other film I was reminded of Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Like Miyazaki's film, Song of the Sea is a magical story aimed at making the audience appreciate its reality, a nostalgic piece that also delivers a message about the present, and above all a deeply emotional work that is beautifully realized, both as a narrative and a visual feast. With Song of the Sea, Moore shows the potential to become the next director (following Miyazaki's recent announcement of retirement) that the animation world looks up to as its prominent filmmaker of beautifully sensitive masterpieces.
When he's not working on his PhD researching animation as a text, Raz Greenberg works as a content editor for an Internet company, and spends his time writing reviews, articles, and stories. His articles have appeared in Strange Horizons, Animated Views, RevolutionSF, and Salon Futura; his fiction has appeared in FutureQuake, Murky Depths, and Ray Gun Revival, and in several Hebrew genre magazines in his home country of Israel. In 2010, a short story by him was nominated for the Geffen Award, given by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy.