‘Song of the Sea’: Animated Irish folkore

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In Irish folklore, selkies are seals, who can shed their skins and assume human form. The Irish animated film, “Song of the Sea,” invokes the selkie mythology to propel its narrative.

In a brief prologue, we meet Ben (David Rawle), a young only child, who lives in remote lighthouse on an island off the the Irish coast. His mother, Bronagh (Lisa Hannigan), dies, while giving birth to a baby girl, Saroise (Lucy O’Connell). Before Ben’s mother departs, she gives him an enchanted sea conch.

The audience learns early on that Saroise is a selkie. However, Ben remains oblivious to this salient fact until much later in the film.

The film fast forwards six years into the future. Ben’s attitude towards his younger sister remains tainted by the fact that his mother had died during Saroise’s birth. His frustration with Saroise is heightened by the fact that she still hasn’t uttered a single word. Their dad, Conor (Brendan Gleeson), counsels patience, insisting that Saroise will speak when she’s ready. However, Conor also remains forlorn by his wife’s tragic death.

One day, Macha (Fionnula Flanagan), Ben’s and Saroise’s short, bossy grandmother comes visiting on the occasion of the latter’s sixth birthday. She launches a tirade, bemoaning how dangerous it is for them to growing up in a lighthouse. Macha demands that they come to live with her in Dublin. Conor meekly capitulates to Macha’s fiat.

However, in Dublin, Saroise falls ill. Ben intuits that to restore her health, they must embark on a perilous trek back to their original home. When the sea conch is played like a horn, magical particles appear. These illuminate the return route for the children. Along the way, they encounter a host of various creatures. Some prove helpful, while others obstruct their pilgrimage. This includes a trio of sylvan ghouls, a flock of hostile owls, and a bearded aquatic spirit. Then, there is a witch. She transforms creatures into rock entities and stores their endogenous sorrows in glass jars. This is supposed to provide them with a less angst-ridden existence. I struggled with this abstruse concept. I can’t help but wonder how young viewers will process it and some of the film’s other challenging notions.

Tomm Moore the co-writer/director of “Song of the Sea” is the co-founder of Cartoon Saloon, an animation studio, which is based in Kilkenny, Ireland. His prior animated film, “The Secret of Kells,” was set in the 8th century A.D. Ireland. This breakthrough film involved the Abbot Cellach, who was devoted to building a protective wall to protect the Abbey of Kells from marauding Vikings. Cellach expects his 12-year old nephew, Brendan to share his passion. However, Brendan is more interested in working in the scriptorium, assisting Brother Aidan. There, they work on the preparation of the Gospel magnus opus, “The Book of Kells.” The film garnered an Oscar nomination in 2010 for best animated feature.

For his follow-up film, “Song of the Sea,” Moore returns to the rich folklore of Ireland. Previously, the selkie tale has informed a pair of live action films, John Sayles’ “The Secret of Ronan Inish” and Neil Jordan’s “Ondine.” Once again, Moore’s film has elicited near universal critical acclaim and scored another nomination for the upcoming Academy Awards.

Putting aside the narrative, the film is a beautiful piece of animation. Contemporary animated films are dominated by CGI. By contrast, “Song of the Sea” consists of lovingly constructed, hand-drawn and hand-painted frames. Moore eschews any semblance of realism in favor of a distinctive, abstracted style.

The visual text is well augmented by a lyrical musical component. It features numerous Gaelic tunes by Bruno Coulais & Kíla as well as Lisa Hannigan.

Resonating with Moore’s obvious affection for his native country’s mythology, “Song of the Sea” is a worthy contender for Academy Award consideration.

*** PG (for some mild peril, language, and pipe smoking images) 93 minutes

A screen capture from the  trailer to the animated short "Song of the Sea" at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgbXWt8kM5Q

A screen capture from the trailer to the animated short “Song of the Sea” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgbXWt8kM5Q

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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