After experiencing the incredible Wolfwalkers at last months London Film Festival, I vowed to correct the enormous mistake that I’d made of having never seen a Cartoon Saloon movie before. Director Tomm Moore followed 2009’s Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells with Song of the Sea, which was also nominated for an Oscar in 2015 but lost out to Disney’s Big Hero 6.
Four-year-old Ben lives in a lighthouse on a remote island with his mother and lighthouse-keeper father Conor (Brendan Gleeson). As his pregnant mother tucks him into bed and kisses him goodnight, she tells him that he is going to be the best big brother any child could ever wish for and from Ben’s viewpoint, we see his eyelids slowly opening and closing as he begins to drift off to sleep. We also see his mother in some kind of distress as she leaves his room. When Ben wakes up the next morning, his mother has gone but he has a new baby sister, Saoirse.
Six years later and the family are still trying to cope with their loss. While Conor continues to mourn privately for his wife, Ben and Saoirse occupy themselves down on the beach of their island home. Saoirse has never spoken a word and is fascinated by the seals as they bob up and down in the sea, watching her intently. Later that night, Saoirse discovers a small white coat locked in a chest that’s hidden away in the lighthouse and we learn that she is, in fact, a selkie – a female faerie-world seal, able to take on human form in order to live among us, a gift that she inherited from her mother. Wearing the coat, Saoirse enters the sea and is transformed into a small white seal, coming alive as she joins the other seals in exploring the fascinating underwater world.
After learning that Saoirse has gone missing, Conor and Ben head down to the beach where they find Saoirse unconscious on the beach. Conor locks up the white seal coat, casting the chest into the sea, and the children’s grandmother arrives soon after to take both children away to live with her in the city, where they will hopefully be safe away from the dangers of the sea. But when Saoirse’s energy begins to fade, and Ben learns of her magical connection to the sea, they set off alone on the long journey back to their father and the sea. Along the way, the children encounter a world of faeries, a magical well and an owl-witch named Macha who is gradually turning the faeries into stone by stealing their feelings. It’s a race against time, as Saoirse’s energy continues to fade while her importance to everything that is going on is revealed.
Like Wolfwalkers, Song of the Sea utilises a simple but unique hand-drawn animation style. Like watercolour paintings brought to life, rough around the edges at times and occasionally employing an odd perspective, making it look as though you are viewing an animated stained-glass window. All of this, including the use of interesting patterns and textures, all gels seamlessly together to create something which is simply beautiful to look at. And accompanied by a wonderfully calming and enchanting score.
While the story itself is certainly as beautiful and fantastical as it sounds, I just didn’t find the execution quite as entertaining or satisfying as I did while watching Wolfwalkers. The opening setup, along with the conclusion, worked well and felt perfect. But the story tended to wander a fair bit around the middle and wasn’t anywhere near as captivating for me overall as I was hoping. That being said, Song of the Sea is still an incredible achievement and certainly hasn’t lessened my appetite for seeking out more from the back catalogue of this wonderful animation studio.
Song of the Sea is available on Prime Video now.
See all photos >>