As a species, we’re born storytellers. For as long as anyone can remember, humanity has documented important events, shaped culture and lulled each other to sleep this way. While everyone can tell an anecdote or two, there are a select few capable of holding audiences entranced, caught between wonder and heartbreak. If The Secret of Kells hadn’t already confirmed it, Song of the Sea, Tomm Moore’s latest animated opus makes it undeniable. Weaving ancient Irish myths around a family struggling with obligation and loss, he’s created a stunning film of imagination and emotion.
Exquisitely rendered with traditional hand drawn animation, Moore tells the story of Ben (David Rawle) and Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) who live in a lighthouse with their father Conor (Brendan Gleeson) and pet dog. The hole caused by the death of their mother when she gave birth to Saoirse gapes in all their lives. Ben can’t hide his irritation with Saoirse, their father, still distraught, can’t hide his loss. As a result, poor Saoirse still hasn’t found her voice. All they have are the leftover stories of giants, fairies and magic their mother used to tell.
A heavy melancholic fog sits over Song of the Sea as everyone struggles to come to terms with a world they can’t accept. But what if their mother’s stories were more than just stories? What if she herself had been a Selkie, a mythological figure from Irish folk tales? The discovery that her fantasy world exists after all, and that Saoirse is the bridge that could save them leads the siblings on a desperate journey to restore her voice before it’s too late.
Moore’s film is cast in magic but its Ben and Saoirse’s relationship that glues it together. The creeping realisation that he’s mistreated his sister advances slowly. The bubble of dark isolation formed around the family has allowed them to avoid dealing with their loss at the cost of future happiness. All of this plays out against breaktaking visuals. Song of the Sea’s use of colour and texture allied with soft lines catches the eye in close-ups and far shots alike. There’s the richness of landscape painting and the eye for detail of a portrait artist at work here.
Smoothly slipping into the narrative come a host of fantastical figures from Irish folklore. They serve to sweep the film along further sending it soaring free of mundane cliché. This is no pointy hat wearing wizard and broomstick riding witch fantasy. Moore instead introduces characters such as Macha (Fionnula Flanagan), an owl like creature who removes all emotion for fear of its impact, and an elderly man whose every hair contains a memory.
All these elements mix together perfectly to create an ethereal experience that trades equally in tears and astonishment. People have been telling stories as long as anyone can remember. Song of the Sea is why we keep listening.