Five stars. Rated PG, for mild peril and fleeting Irish profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.30.15
There’s an irritating tendency to believe that quality animated films come only from the United States, an arrogant assumption that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has attempted to address — with varying success — since granting such features their own Oscar category in 2001.
Although domestic efforts still tend to win the award — and that’s also annoying — the competition nonetheless has granted welcome exposure to foreign talents such as Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville), Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud (Persepolis) and Hayao Miyazaki (nominated three times, and a winner for Spirited Away).
But a sidebar problem also has emerged: It can be hard to see some of the nominees, particularly prior to the Academy Awards broadcast. As I’ve noted previously, the Academy’s animation branch can be congratulated for recognizing talent outside the United States, but that cultural generosity hasn’t been embraced by American movie distributors ... or, for that matter, by American movie viewers.
In 2011, A Cat in Paris and Chico and Rita had almost no distribution throughout the United States. One of last year’s nominees, Ernest & Celestine, never was released in our local area, having been granted only limited national release and exposure at some film festivals. And although nothing could have stopped the Frozen juggernaut — which inevitably included the Oscar in this category — Ernest & Celestine is a far better film on every level.
Which brings us to this year, and similar frustrations. Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya played a few film festivals in October and had very limited release in the rest of the country ... but only in a compromised version that inserted a new American voice cast (another practice that I deem horrifying). Good luck finding it.
Irish director Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea played for two qualifying weeks in late December, in New York, and has remained off the radar since then ... until now. The film is making spotty appearances nationwide, and, starting today, we’ve been granted one screen at an outlying Roseville multiplex.
Trust me: It’ll be worth the drive.
And don’t wait, because I doubt it’ll stay there very long.
Moore may be remembered for having helmed the delightful Secret of the Kells back in 2009, which also earned an Oscar nod. He and his crew began work on Song of the Sea that same year, and the lengthy production time will be understood the moment you experience the luxurious, absolutely gorgeous hand-drawn art that fills every frame.
Beautiful animation isn’t necessarily sufficient for its own sake, of course; ideally it should accompany a compelling and emotionally vibrant narrative. That’s definitely the case here, as the film’s look and atmosphere perfectly complement the poignant Irish folk tale at the heart of this storyline.
Selkies — women capable of transforming into seals — have long played a prominent role in Irish myth, and they’ve cropped up in several films over the years; even American indie director John Sayles covered this ground, with his poignant 1994 adaptation of Rosalie K. Fry’s The Secret of Roan Inish.
Moore’s Song of the Sea is an original story, co-written with Will Collins, and it weaves a similarly charming tale that will beguile both children and adults. The saga gently pushes its central characters out of their familiar, real-world lives and into a parallel realm inhabited by beings and creatures long regarded as fairy tales. In that respect, the tone and approach are very much like Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, but in this case deeply immersed in Irish culture.
Our key protagonist, Ben (voiced by David Rawle), is a young boy who lives with his father, Conor (Brendan Gleeson), and younger sister, Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell), on a rocky promontory overlooking the ocean. The children’s’ father is responsible for the lighthouse adjacent to their tiny house; it’s an isolated, lonely existence steeped in sorrow.
Ben was the apple of his mother’s eye until Saoirse’s birth, an event that precipitated some sort of crisis. Ben hasn’t seen his mother since that night; Conor also pines the loss of his wife. The implication is that Ben’s mother died in childbirth, but we suspect that isn’t true; regardless, the boy continues to blame his younger sister, quite unfairly, for the shroud-like gloom that envelopes them like a blanket.
Saoirse, nonetheless bonded to her brother in the time-honored manner of all adoring younger sisters, cannot understand Ben’s often gruff impatience with her. The little girl also doesn’t speak, having been silent her entire life. But she does seem to share some sort of rapport with the smiling seals that often watch from the waves that break against the shore below their home and lighthouse.
The character art is minimalist and flat, eschewing the 3D look we often expect these days: more like Charles M. Schulz’s approach to his Peanuts children. This is not intended as a pejorative; Moore, artistic director Adrien Merigeau and their animators never waste a line, obtaining precisely the right character emotion at all times.
Surrounding landscapes are more detailed, in a painterly manner; our initial view of the shore and verdant slope leading to the lighthouse is breathtaking, the rocks standing stark against a rich blue watercolor sky. (Moore admits to being inspired by Irish landscape painter Paul Henry.) A car trip through the surrounding countryside unfolds as an interactive map while Ben tries to chart their course on paper with colored pencil, this retro approach blended with conventional animation inserts of their trip. Delightful.
Ben and Saoirse’s meddling grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) insists that the children move to the city to live with her, arguing that their desolate lighthouse setting is inappropriate. But Saoirse begins to decline as she loses contact with the ocean. Ben’s antipathy notwithstanding, he still feels protective of his little sister, and worries about her fading state.
And the boy is astonished when the musical notes that Saoirse plays on a conch shell attract the attention of some clandestine elves: the last of their kind not transformed into the stone figures that we suddenly realize have been as ubiquitous as garden gnomes. Saoirse, it turns out, is the last of the selkies — a rather unsettling detail — and the only one capable of restoring order in this supernatural side-realm.
By singing. But the little girl remains mute, unaware of any such power.
Worse yet, these events have come to the attention of the witch Macha (also Flanagan), who has been responsible for all the stone transformations. This began long ago as a misguided act of kindness, when she “healed” her giant son Mac Lir’s grief by turning him into the rocky island not far from Conor’s lighthouse; over time, Macha has become convinced that emotions are responsible for all the world’s ills, and that we’d be better off without them.
To that end, Macha dispatches her owl emissaries to kidnap Saoirse, before she can learn to sing.
At which point, Ben realizes that it’s time to step up and accept responsibility like the loving older brother he really is, deep down. His subsequent adventures, as he struggles to rescue Saoirse — assisted solely by their huge, loving dog, Cu — will be familiar to Miyazaki fans who watched as young Chihiro sought to rescue her ensorcelled parents from a similarly supernatural realm, in Spirited Away.
The film’s magical atmosphere is augmented further by its deeply moving soundtrack: a blend of original compositions by Bruno Coulais, and traditional Irish ballads and shanties performed by the band Kíla. I’ve long thought that wistful Irish tunes are second to none, in terms of emotional impact: a fact further proven by Moore’s deft handling of this score.
While there’s much to be admired in recent American efforts such as How to Train Your Dragon and Up, they focus more on fun; they rarely engage the emotions at a truly spiritual level. I’ve had that stronger, more satisfying reaction to an animated feature only a handful of times during the past decade or so; I can point to Spirited Away, Ernest & Celestine and now Song of the Sea.
It is indeed that powerful. And memorable. And beautifully, lovingly crafted.