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Song of the Sea | Review

Of Myth and Men: Moore Dons Skin of the Irish Selkies To Craft Stunning Children’s Tale of Family Heritage

Song of the Sea Tomm Moore PosterYou can probably count the number of independent animation studios still making successful culturally specific feature films on a pair of hands, and Studio Ghibli, Aardman Animations, and the Irish production company Cartoon Saloon can be tallied among them. Melding Irish myth with a wash of cinematic reference points that pay homage and inspire in equal measure, director Tomm Moore and his army of inventive artists and animators at Cartoon Saloon have crafted a wonderously imaginative film in Song of the Sea, which lifts from folk stories of the legendary ‘selkies’ that live as humans on land and seals at sea to form a sensorially stunning commentary on the importance of storytelling and unified kinship.

Much like the devastating prologue of Up or the moment of heartbreaking truth in Bambi, Moore’s feature sets a mournful tone with the loss of a young family’s mother, leaving behind an overwhelmed father (played with sulking somberness by Brendan Gleeson in his second role with Moore after the Oscar nominated The Secret of Kells) and his two children, Ben and his silent younger sister Saoirse, to live in isolation in a lighthouse on the rim of a seaside clifftop just off the mainland. As the playfully combatant siblings fight over a mysterious shell flute left by their mother, one can’t help but be reminded of the family of My Neighbor Totoro whose own experience with local mythology yields adventure and a deep-seeded yearning for family cohesion, yet Moore’s hand crafted story is painted in a slightly darker palette of water colors. When grief overtakes the children’s father, they are sent to live with their draconian grandmother in the city. Longing for home, the kids set out, not unlike Mei from Totoro, to find their father.

As their adventure progresses, Ben begins to realize that the legends of fairies and sea creatures his mother used to tell him might actually be true. Playing their mysterious shell flute, Saoirse seems to conjure subtle clouds of light that guide their way (not unlike the beloved kodama spirits of Princess Mononoke), as well as a cast of supernatural beings that seek to either help or harm. A trio of musically inclined fairies reveal that Saoirse may never find her voice without the selkie coat once worn by her mother and, recalling the jolly old ghost of Christmas present from The Muppets Christmas Carol, a forgetful spirit whose memories are held forever within his ever-growing head of hair, gives insight into the selkie legend in which they’ve apparently been born into. As the facts begin to surface, their leisurely journey home becomes a dramatic race against time that risks Saoirse’s very life, and thus, the already fragile family unit itself.

While the narrative weaves a wholesome thematic tapestry that promotes family unity and the importance of maintaining one’s cultural heritage, Moore’s film thrives in its awe-inspiring art direction and gorgeously composed soundtrack by Bruno Coulais and the Irish band Kíla. Steeped in moody regional sounds that ache of loss and yearning, the wonderful songs that come wispily up through the aural surface are narratively key to making Song of the Sea such a miraculous success. The film never yields to the form of a traditional animated musical, standing pat to become something much more original, magical even, then one might expect.

Reviewed on September 13th at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival – TIFF Kids Programme. 93 min



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