"Song of the Sea" 2014, Tomm Moore director, David Rawle, Brendan Gleeson, Lisa Hannigan. (10 out of 10)
A few years ago a little Irish animated movie called "Secret of the Kells" came out. It's about a Viking horde invading and destroying a monastery. Light material for a cartoon. My sons and I watched it and were enchanted by every frame. The design and animation was unlike anything I'd ever seen. I was hoping I hadn't seen the last of the writer and director Tomm Moore. When the Academy Award nominations were announced, I realized he had a new movie out, but I had a hard time tracking it down. Now that "Song of the Sea" is available on Amazon Instant (free with Amazon Prime), we sat down last night and watched it.
The story is a retelling of the Irish selkie legend: someone who has the form of a woman on the land, but a seal in the water. Many selkie myths have her falling in love with a human man on land, and then after a time feeling the call of the sea, and returning to her seal form. Not as well known as mermaids, they're enough a part of Irish tradition that a movie's made about them about once a decade. "The Secret of Roan Inish" was most famous, but in 2000 there was "Selkie"...there have been a few others. "Song of the Sea" is the best.
The selkie in question is Ben's mum, who disappeared the night that she gave birth to Ben's little sister, Saoirse. Ben's father, a kind but gruff lighthouse keeper, withdraws. The three of them live what seems to be a lonely life on their island off the coast of Ireland. Ben holds a grudge against Saoirse, who by the age of six is still a mute. She only communicates with gestures and breathing (too loudly, according to Ben), and after a visit from their grandmother, are sent to the city to live. The rest of the story has Ben and Saoirse trying to get back to their lighthouse, finding magical allies and enemies along the way.
The backgrounds and character designs are some of the best I've ever seen. The animators manage to blend large abstract shapes with intricate detail, and it fits the magical, lyrical quality of the story perfectly. I really don't know how to express how different the animation is from what I'm used to seeing -- here's the trailer, which will be better than my words.
While we were watching it, my son looked up and said "what I love about this is that I don't know where the story is going." And that's very much the case. If we're watching say, a Disney or even Pixar (better, in my opinion) movie, you typically know all the beats of the story. What's going to happen to the hero, the villain, where a song might be, what the character's Darkest Moment is. With both "Song of the Sea" and "Secret of the Kells" -- we just didn't know. It was a different kind of story, and the animation helped to create that magical world. Where "Kells" was set in the (mumble)(9th?) century, this is set in the modern day, and that's another interesting touch--having magic still alive, still present in the 21st century alongside cars and pubs and lighthouses. Besides the magic, there were themes of love, loss, and grief that seemed to go deeper than other, perhaps similar films. I may be making it sound heavy, and although there are serious themes, it's also fun and has silly moments, and...it felt like a very complete movie.
If you've got Amazon Prime, if you're a fan of animation, if you're interested in expanding your cinematic palette, this is a film with vision, with mystery, with heart. It's got a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 10/10 rating from me. You should watch it. Really soon. Okay, now.