Irish animation has been in rude health for quite some time. With the likes of Doc McStuffins and Cartoon Saloon's roaring success with Book of Kells, one could easily believe that Ireland's output has the potential to match Japan beat for beat. In Song of the Sea, we have a film with such emotional depth and warmth that it could Ireland's answer to any of Hayao Miyazaki's work.
Based on Irish folklore, Song of the Sea follows two children, Ben and Saoirse, who live in a lighthouse with their widowed father (Brendan Gleeson). The mother, voiced by singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan, disappears in the night and walks into the sea, leaving behind her two children and her husband. Six years later, the grandmother arrives from the city and seeks to bring the children to the city. In the emotional and physical absence of their parents, the children have grown sullen and reserved, with Ben viewing Saoirse as nothing more than annoyance and an association with his missing mother.When the children reach the city, they soon plot an escape with the intention of returning to the coast and reuniting with their father. The story, however, runs above another layer that takes in Irish folk tales and myth. Intertwined with this narrative is one of loss, communing with nature, ancient Irish tales of selkies and a king who turned into stone and the Irish psyche of repressing emotion. It's heavy stuff, especially for a film that's aimed towards children.
Tomm Moore and Cartoon Saloon's penchant for glorious, richly-designed animation is on full display here. With abstract visuals and Celtic-inspired murals and triptychs, Song of the Sea gently blends these two opposing forces to create something that is unique, yet familiar and inherently Irish. There's a real sense that we've heard these stories before in some shape or form, or maybe it's just so well-written that it feels like we've known them already.The cast, made up of Brendan Gleeson, Lisa Hannigan, Fionnuala Flanagan and Pat Shortt, are deployed with ease. Gleeson's gruff and gravelly tones perfectly fit as the fisherman, whilst Hannigan's ethereal presence is perfect as the mythic Bronagh. Likewise, Fionnuala Flanagan's gravitas is brought to bear as the uniquely sinister Granny.
While the film is a family-friendly movie, there's a sense that some elements will fly over children's heads. That's OK. Nobody would look at Howl's Moving Castle and expect kids to fully understand every aspect of it. Instead, they're treated to a feast for the eyes and ears while parents and adults are given a story that is deep in meaning, emotion and heart. The roiling mix of emotions at work in Song of the Sea is incredible. There's child-like wonder, humour, warmth, bitterness and anguish. It's little wonder that this was nominated for an Oscar.
For our money, Song of the Sea is one of the best animated films to come out of Ireland and will be for quite some time.