Like The Tale of Princess Kaguya, one of my favorite films from last year, Song of the Sea is a gorgeously-rendered visual experience wrapped around a folktale narrative. Also like Kaguya, Song is among those films nominated for Best Animated Feature in the up-coming Academy Awards. Yet while my vote would probably still go to the anime, Song is not to be ignored.

Written and directed by Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells), Song is classically animated with beautiful drawings over watercolor backgrounds. The artwork is dense and latticed, with a certain stylized flatness that gives shapes and patterns a demanding, almost overwhelming, visual presence. The level of detail and texture in almost every image is such that Song pretty much demands re-watching. And the chance to see it on the the big screen is (I’m not joking) reason alone to buy a ticket.

Unlike its Japanese counterpart, Song‘s story is straight-up kid-friendly. Its tale follows a modern-day boy named Ben and his younger sister, Saoirse. The girl appears mute, but she’s actually a mythical sea creature called a Selkie. These seal-like beings, which are cute as aquatic Samoyed puppies, can shed their skin and morph into human form, but Ben doesn’t know his sister’s power. As such, he’s a jerk to her at their island home and perhaps blames her for their mom’s disappearance. She left their lives the night Saoirse was born.

But when the kids’ grandmother takes them to live with her in the “safe” city, the two escape Halloween night on a journey to the sea. From there, the narrative follows a homeward-bound structure that delves continually deeper into Irish and Scottish mythology. To its great credit, Song doesn’t have a Sauron-esque villain that the kids must kill in their quest. Instead, there’s an owl witch with whom the heroes have to understand to overcome. It’s a refreshing change to the traditional good versus evil trope, and it also serves to make the film’s mythical world feel deeper, more emotionally connected and human.

Yet, Song has its issues. For starters, the story wraps up with a bit too big a bow. Then there are quite a few obvious lore and story questions that go annoyingly unanswered. Like, why is the kids’ dad, Conor, so clueless? There are also some asides with musical fairy dudes that feel clunky and slow. Worse yet, they’re set in places, like an underground tunnel system, that don’t go so well with the animation. For it’s through the art (and music) that Song amazes. The more landscapes, the better. After all, that’s the soil from which so much of mythology, Gaelic or otherwise, grows.

Song of the Sea is playing at the Lagoon Cinema.

Jonathon Sharp

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