Newer does not necessarily mean better. While Pixar and Dreamworks may use the latest rendering techniques in their digital epics, there are those who prefer the warmth and personality of traditional methods. The work of Hayao Miyazakis’ Studio Ghibli is an example of this, as are the films of Irish illustrator and filmmaker Tomm Moore.
His debut feature, 2009’s The Secret of Kells was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, an accolade which has been matched by The Song of the Sea, now finally on general release in the United Kingdom. Like its predecessor, it delves into history and folklore but this time in a more contemporary setting.
It is 1981, and in their lighthouse home, perched atop an island just off the mainland Ben lives with his parents Conor and Bronagh (voiced by Stonehearst Asylum’s Brendan Gleeson and singer Lisa Hannigan), ready to be the best big brother in the world but the night Bronagh gives birth to Saoirse is the night she is lost.
Years pass, and Ben’s Granny (voiced by Fionnula Flanagan who fulfilled a similar role for Data on Star Trek The Next Generation’s Inheritance) arrives for Saoirse’s sixth birthday but the household is in disarray, Conor depressed and brooding and Ben (voiced by Moone Boy’s David Rawle) resentful of his younger sister who has never spoken a word.
Leaving the children under the watchful eye of Granny, Conor goes to the mainland to drown his sorrow, but as she falls asleep Saoirse first steals the musical shell given to Ben by his mother then goes down to the shore, entering the water to swim with the seals.
Realising how easily tragedy could have occurred, Granny insists the lighthouse isn’t safe for Ben and Saoirse who must leave the island and come live with her in the city, but the children determine to make their own way back, guided by the map Ben has drawn and the spirits of the land, the Faeries who need Saoirse to sing the Song of the Sea to free their brethren from the spirit of Macha.
Like the work of acclaimed English novelist Alan Garner, The Song of the Sea blends ancient folklore with the pain and uncertainty of modern childhood, and with Ben and Saoirse crawling through underground passages and navigating underground rivers, fearful of dark forces following in the form of birds, much of the film parallels Garner’s most famous work, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.
Written by Will Collins from a story by Moore, the background of every frame is brushed in soft watercolours the characterisation reminds of The Adventures of One eskimO. Largely through the enchanting soundtrack of Bruno Coulais and Kíla in moments it finds the power to be magical, but while beautifully rendered it is uneven and even at ninety three minutes the scant narrative is stretched and will offer more to charm adults who remain nostalgic for Noggin the Nog than the intended audience of their offspring.
The Song of the Sea is currently on general release