Mythology and Folklore has long been a fascination of mine, so when I heard that an animated film was being made about the legendary Irish Selkies, I had to see it. Entitled Song of the Sea, the film centers around young Ben, another lover of farie stories, in this case the many wonderful tales of Irish Mythology. Living on an island with his father, the lighthouse keeper, Ben spends his days dreaming of giants and witches, and playing with his best friend, Coo, the dog. An idyllic life…except for the existence of his little sister, Saoirse. Six years old and yet never having spoken a single word, Saoirse is incomprehensible to Ben, especially since she seems to love the sea as much as he fears it. This state of affairs, however, is soon to change. On the night of her sixth birthday, Saoirse discovers a incredible secret: she is in fact a selkie, a magical creature that can shape-shift between the form of a human and a seal, and that her mother was one too. She and Ben quickly find themselves on a magical journey through a world of wonders…and great dangers.
While some elements of this premise might sound tired and done to death (siblings at odds, a hidden world of magic), the devil’s in the details. Ben (voiced by David Rawle) is one of the best child characters I’ve seen in a long time, an expertly written child who is unable to deal with his feelings over his mother Bronagh’s (Lisa Hannigan) tragic death. His love of the legends and stories she would tell him, as well as his antipathy toward Saoirse (who was born right around the time Bronagh died) feels very real. Saoirse, too, comes of as a very believable six year old, full of curiosity and wonder about the world and her place in it. The children’s father Connor (Brendan Gleesson) is a believably written, single father struggling with his wife’s death, and even the villainous witch Macha (Fionnula Flanagan) reveals surprising complexity. The heart of the story, however, is the sibling’s relationship, and how they both must grow in order to reconcile and finally emerge from the shadow of tragedy that has haunted their lives. That’s a pretty deep theme for an animated movie, and I am immensely thankful that it was expressed so well through the narrative.
Of course, a well-written film can loose some of its impact if it’s visuals are sub-par, so it’s a good thing that Song of the Sea is one of the MOST BEAUTIFUL ANIMATED WORKS I HAVE EVER SEEN. Every scene, every frame could be presented at an art gallery. The film draws from a wide color pallete, using bright greens, reds and blues to bring it’s version of Ireland come to life. The character models, though less detailed than the backgrounds, are wonderful, and express subtle emotions through facial and body movement constantly. All the creatures of Irish mythology are also beautifully realized, from the weeping Giant Mac Lir to the Selkie herself, and they help fully immerse the audience in the fantasy of Ben and Saoirse’s tale. Computer animated films may rule the animated genre today, but Song of the Sea proves that traditional animation can still blow audiences away.
The film boasts quite a cast, with well known Irish actors like Gleeson and Flanagan giving the great performances they’re known for. The unquestionable star of the show, however, is 14 year old David Rawle as Ben. Rawle brings passion and nuance to the role, capturing both Ben’s stubbornness and his sensitivity, getting to the emotional core of the character. These stellar performances are aided by a soundtrack full of beautiful songs sung mainly in Gaelic, which add much to the atmosphere and sense of wonder in the film. As awesome as the animation is, it wouldn’t have half the impact without such a great soundtrack accompanying it.
A story of family, loss and reconciliation, Song of the Sea is both deeply personal and immensely relatable. It is one of the most emotionally resonant movies I’ve seen all year. Though it has a limited release, you should make the effort to seek it out, if you are a fan of good movies, animated or otherwise.
Rating: 4.0 out of 5
Song of the Sea is showing in select theaters. Check local listings for details.