Mark Reviews Movies

Song of the Sea


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tomm Moore

Cast: The voices of David Rawle, Fionnula Flanagan, Brendan Gleeson, Lisa Hannigan, Pat Shortt, Jon Kenny, Lucy O'Connell

MPAA Rating: PG (for some mild peril, language and pipe smoking images)

Running Time: 1:33

Release Date: 12/19/14 (limited); 1/30/15 (wider); 2/20/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 20, 2015

There was once a giant whose life became a tragedy. He cried so much and for so long that his tears created a sea that threatened to wash away an entire civilization. Song of the Sea never explicitly states what tragedy befell the giant, but the film does give us enough information to reasonably fill in the blanks. The giant looks like another character in the film—a man who lost his wife on the eve of Halloween. The giant's mother, a witch who decides to save her son by eliminating his pain, looks and sounds very much like the man's mother. She arrives on the anniversary of the loss of the wife to take the man's children with her to the city, thereby removing a pair of painful reminders of the man's grief.

In the film, the ordinary world and the realm of myth mingle more openly than the way the tales of legend and the characters' lives reflect each other. Fairies live in a cavern hidden among the brush on a roundabout, and the stone shells of fairies are scattered across the countryside. Mystical dots of light lead the protagonists to their next stop, and selkies, mythical creatures that live as seals in the water and as humans on land, swim in the sea. There is magic in this everyday world, and if that's true, then even the seemingly average human characters are a part of myth.

Their story is one of pain and grief—of a mother and wife lost without any sensible reason. One night, she is singing to her son, and the next morning, the boy awakens to discover that she is gone. She has left behind a baby sister for him. His story might also be told in this way: There was once a boy who gained a little sister on the same night he lost his mother. It doesn't change what happened, but does making his past sound as if it is the beginning of a myth make the ordinary seem slightly extraordinary?

In a way, director Tomm Moore's animated film is as much about how we frame stories and why we tell them as it is about this particular story. We know myths and legends are simply mirrors of our human experiences—that we tell them as a means of comfort and to emphasize the ways we could and, perhaps, should live. If a boy hears that a giant could experience the same kind of agony he is feeling, then the boy, in some small way, is a part of legend. He might come to better understand the pain of his father, who is akin to a giant in the boy's eyes. If the boy can endure the feelings that defeated the giant, is he not stronger than that mythical creature?

Four years after losing his mother, Ben (voice of David Rawle) and his little sister Saoirse (voice of Lucy O'Connell), who has never spoken a word, still live with their father (voice of Brendan Gleeson) in a lighthouse at the top of a precipice overlooking the sea. Ben has not lived up to his mother's prediction that he would be "the best big brother in the world." He has more affection for and gives more attention to his big, fluffy dog.

The children's paternal grandmother (voice of Fionnula Flanagan) arrives, hoping to take the kids to the city to give their father some grieving space. When Saoirse wanders off into the sea after discovering a magical coat in a box left behind by her mother, their father, unaware that his young daughter is a selkie of myth, agrees to his mother's proposed arrangement.

The rest of the story in William Collins' screenplay follows Ben and Saoirse trying to find their way back to the lighthouse, although they encounter plenty of adventures and mystical characters of good and of ill along the way. The chief villain is the witch (also voiced by Flanagan), whose owls are searching for Saoirse and who captures emotions in jars made of indestructible glass. As they travel the countryside following mysterious lights that are drawn to and guide Saoirse, they also find singing fairies, who tell of the power of Saoirse's song to revive their kin, and an old storyteller living in an underground cave. His long strands of white hair contain all the tales of the world and fill the entire cavern.

Moore's second film continues his aesthetic style of thick lines that form to sharp edges and curves. The characters, painted in bold colors, are set against backdrops of more natural hues. It's like a storybook in motion. Circles are predominately used to form the art within this world, the natural world itself (Note how the storm clouds in an early scene are tangled masses of thin, swirling lines of various shades of gray), and frames to outline characters and scenes (notably a shot of the witch's owls, which are designed with round heads, attempting to crack a circular window and another showing the orb of the witch's eye fitting neatly into the outlines of a eye-shaped peephole).

We are constantly confronted with parallels here, forcing us to consider how these stories are framed by the characters and within the central story itself—how the stories define the characters and how, in a general way, the experiences and emotions of the characters seem like the foundation for the tales. The story of Song of the Sea is simple, but when set against the trials and woes of yore, it reveals layers of suffering and, more importantly, the human capacity to endure it.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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