In an animation market saturated by the likes of Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks, those that have become some of the foremost names of the latest wave of animation, we sometimes forget that there are other voices as well. Song of the Sea is one of those alternative stories that is ripe for discovery.
Tomm Moore’s creation is so rich and vibrant, steeped in mythology and Irish folk tales. In some strange way, there’s a very cursory resemblance to some of Hayao Miyazaki’s worlds — the way that this story is similarly immersed in the culture in wonderful ways as well as fantasy elements entrenched in the culture (ie. Selkies), yet it still manages to remain universal, grounded in the everyday relationships of a family that pertain to all of us.
It becomes this grandiose mixture of the depressed and even decrepit streets of Ireland, wind-tossed waves, and hardened rocks. But against that very austere environment is something so luminous, magical, and life-giving. It gives the story an immense character both pictorially and thematically that runs through its entire narrative with every frame reflecting a certain essence of Irish culture, history, and even topography.
We watch with a degree of awe as young Ben is brought up to look at the world with the same wonderment in his Irish heritage. His father (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) is the local lighthouse keeper and his mother raises him up in a loving spirit. But with the birth of his younger sister and the loss of his mother, Ben’s life is different. He’s faced with loss just as his father is but he’s also faced with a promise he must keep. To love and protect his little sister Saoirse — to be her guardian — as his mother entreated him to.
Of course, the story devolves into a tale of annoyance and jealousy as Ben grows a little bit older and slowly becomes peeved with his sister’s ways. She still doesn’t talk and seemingly beats by a slightly different drum. He quickly loses sight of the value in her — only seeing the nuisance that dwells there.
But if anything, Song of the Sea is a story of discovery or even rediscovery if you will. Like Narnia or any such fantasy tale, it asks its main protagonist and the audience as well to grab hold of their child-like sensibilities and lose everything that causes them to grumble on a daily basis. That is the road that Ben is taken on. First, his goals are simple. He’s sent away from the family home he’s lived at forever and so his main objective is to escape grandma’s house in the city and get back to his dad and his dog, the massive, huggable, lovable sheepdog Cu.
However, Song of the Sea’s stakes heighten so much more because he comes to realize, begrudgingly at first, how special his little sister is and as his mother entrusted him so long ago, he must protect her. It’s a struggle but to the end, he honors that promise and it reflects the maturity that comes over him. It makes the film’s conclusion especially meaningful because we have seen the full progression and know truly what is at stake. That’s the sign of quality storytelling that will meet both kids and adults and leave them changed for the better.
In truth, my own name is Irish Gaelic and though I don’t speak a lick and the closest I’ve ever gotten geographically is Scotland (not quite close enough), there’s still a fascination I have with the very spirit of the place embodied so perfectly by this film.
The folk songs are elegantly mellifluous and even in all the chaos, all the darkness, great light can still be revealed. That is the hope of this film and even as families are fragmented and split apart. They can be mended and healed. Even if all the pain and hurt does not evaporate, the fact that we can hold family close, share the laughter as well as the tears together, that is often enough. Because it teaches us to care about others — to leave our petty, selfish endeavors behind to love others well.