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Song of the Sea

AFI Fest 2014 Review


GKids; 93 minutes

Director: Tomm Moore


Written by on November 12, 2014 




Song of the Sea, the latest animated feature from The Secret of Kells director Tomm Moore, opens with a dreamlike sequence that quickly lays the foundation for most of what is to follow, both thematically and narratively. With its storybook feel — thanks to its central images being surrounded by a foggy, yet creatively animated edge of the frame — Moore and screenwriter Will Collins introduce us to Ben, a young Irish boy who is busy helping his mother prepare for the birth of his younger sister. As the two ready the unborn child’s bedroom before bed one night, Ben’s mother Bronagh describes to Ben the Irish tales of the “selkies” while reminding her son of what importance comes with his duties as big brother.

After the opening credits, however, the film jumps forward in time, and things have changed. Ben is now several years older and Saoirse, his younger sister, is a six-year-old girl who has yet to speak a word. The two live with their father, Connor (voiced noticeably by Brendan Gleeson), a burly, red-haired man still grieving over the apparent loss of his wife, a fact hinted at by the unexpectedly dark turn the film’s opening takes. When Saoirse is found on the shore of the beach near the family’s isolated lighthouse one night — after what may or may not have been a very vivid dream — Conor sends his children to live with their grandmother on the mainland. It’s when Ben and Saoirse decide to make their way back home that the adventure, as well as the fairytales Ben was told as a kid, begins to come to life.

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The traditional, handcrafted animation that Moore is again working with gives the movie a distinct, yet classically appealing aesthetic that visually distinguishes it from the variety of other animated offerings we’ve seen of late. The depth of the environments is truly remarkable, a layering of complex details and visual flourishes juxtaposed against the simpler design of the central characters. The nighttime sequences are somehow even more impressive as the images glow with such clarity as to almost create a 3D effect.

Narratively speaking, Song of the Sea is fairly straightforward, which should be no surprise given the film’s primary target audience. Any discerning viewer will be able to predict the basics of the story after the opening sequence, but the obvious foreshadowing at play indicates that this is the intention. If you quickly jump to the conclusion that Ben and Saoirse’s own story is somehow intertwined with Bronagh’s Irish folklore, you’re off to a good start.

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But what Song of the Sea may lack in narrative complexity it makes up for elsewhere. Collins’ script and Moore’s visual storytelling clearly present and blend the traditional Irish tales — ones that many viewers may be learning for the first time — with the story of Ben and his family. As the narrative unfolds, so does a surprising level of emotional depth that crosses generational lines. Thematically, among other things, the movie deals with how people of all ages cope with loss and reconcile with the past, and how a strong sibling bond can develop despite a complicated relationship shaped by shared trauma and an undeserved yet understandable resentment.

Children will be consumed by the film’s visual splendor and taken by its lighthearted humor (with Ben’s shaggy dog Cu standing out as a clear favorite), and if they are able to leave the theater having gained anything from the central brother-sister relationship, that’s an added bonus. Parents and adults, meanwhile, would be hard-pressed not to be moved by Song of the Sea’s emotional core.

Song of the Sea screened at AFI Fest and will be released on December 19th. See the trailer here.


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