Imagine if Wall-E was an Irish girl who could turn into a seal. That, in essence, is Song of the Sea.
Endearing, cute, moving, funny, and engaging: Song of the Sea is a superb children’s film, presenting what is a quite complex story and an intricate, carefully crafted world in an accessible, simple way. Though having the same kind of childish wonderment of, for example, Wall-E, it is far removed from the largely homogenous style of mainstream animated film. There’s no 3D animation, no jokes for the parents or star-studded voice cast (with the exception of Brendan Gleeson, who plays a small role with few meaningful lines). Everything about the film is barebones and stripped down, focusing not on commerciality but on telling a story as well as it can be told.
The film tells the story of Saoirse, a young, mute girl who can turn into a seal, and her brother, Ben, as they go an adventure across Ireland to save the spirit world and return to their own home from their unpleasant Grandmother’s. The film and its story are immersed in a sizeable chunk of Irish folklore, stuffed to the brim with giants, witches, and faeries, all of which are explained and introduced in a fluid, simple way – there’s no clunky exposition or info-dumps destroying the pacing, instead you just get wrapped slowly and unnoticeably into the film’s world.
The animation is 2D and hand-drawn, perfectly reflecting the tone of the film – simplistic, childlike, and folksy – and is genuinely beautiful in its own reserved, subtle way. There are no big set-pieces or scenes made on a grander scale – not that there couldn’t be, the film has lots of action and fantastical happenings. What happens instead is that these are the moments where the animation becomes even more low-key and cut-back, keeping the sense of the fantastic without ever letting it eclipse the story or become the core of the film.
Ultimately, Song of the Sea is a reserved, refreshing take on the animated children’s film. It focuses heavily on its story, but doesn’t neglect the other aspects that make a film. And, like all good children’s films, it isn’t just a film about spirits and faeries, you can, if you want, see it as a story that is largely about death, and loss, and fear, and mourning. But – and this is what really separates it from most other children’s films – none of that is ever explicitly stated; it doesn’t beat you around the head with its morals or its ambiguities. Song of the Sea is a film that feels instantly nostalgic – it feels comfortably familiar while you watch it, and when it ends you want nothing more than to stay a bit longer in the enchanting world it let you glimpse.
Song of the Sea (2014), directed by Tomm Moore, is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal, Certificate PG.