Song of the Sea, the latest work of art from Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, opens on a scene between a pregnant mother and her young son. They’re preparing a room for the baby, painting its walls with elaborate imagery depicting the ancient Celtic myth of the selkie, a magical creature that’s something of a cross between a human and a seal. Little does the son, Ben (David Rawle), know that his mother and soon-to-be sister are both selkies themselves.
Celtic mythology is territory that director Tomm Moore has mined before, particularly in 2009’s The Secret of Kells, which explored the creation of the Book of Kells and introduced Moore’s signature visual style to the world. He seems to revel in his role as a sort of cultural historian, preserving and updating these ancient stories for a modern audience. Song of the Sea is even more successful than its predecessor in this regard, as it’s actually set in modern times and bears certain signifiers — a cassette player, telephone wires, a puttering buggy car — that somehow seem both antiquated and contemporary. The world Moore has painted is impressively, even uncannily timeless, and viewers of all ages will be able to project themselves inside it with ease.
This level of care and precision in world-building is reflected in the animation itself, which is frankly gorgeous. Nearly every two-dimensional surface in Song of the Sea is adorned with elaborate linework, from a seaside cliff to a bustling city street. Certain shots are so immaculately framed that they could easily stand alone as artworks in a different context. This is a film that draws attention to its own visual craftsmanship at nearly every chance it gets, and the settings are so breathtaking that they risk distracting from the story they’re meant to support.
Fortunately, the story itself is simple enough without sacrificing narrative depth. Ben’s mother dies within moments of that opening scene, plunging herself into the ocean for reasons not yet made clear. We fast-forward six years and see that Ben has morphed into a grumpy preteen who continues to blame his sister, Saoirse, for their mother’s death. Like many an older brother, he’s irritated by practically everything she does — including the things she doesn’t do.
See, Saoirse has yet to speak or sing a word; in order to do so, she needs a special coat that her father, Conor (voiced by Irish national treasure Brendan Gleeson), has locked away in a closet. On the night of her sixth birthday, she finds the coat and finally transforms into her true seal self, diving into the ocean to commence one of the film’s most beautifully stylized scenes. But no sooner does Saoirse finally become comfortable in her slippery skin than her father takes away her mystical coat, throws it into the sea, and sends her and Ben off to live with their Granny in the city. The rest of the film chronicles their escape and adventure back home, and it’s filled with all the touchstones of a children’s fantasy: fairies, magical flutes, even an owl witch.
Song of the Sea never quite explains the “rules” underlying its mystical world, though we are to understand that this world is in fact mystical, and that these fairies and sea giants aren’t simply figments of the children’s imagination. Someone without a cursory knowledge of Celtic mythology might struggle to understand the basic conflict that drives the film’s plot, but that’s almost just as well. Moore tightens the focus on Ben and Saoirse’s relationship, which is right where it needs to be. It’s a credit to his visual storytelling instincts that Saoirse feels like a fully fleshed-out character without saying more than five words in the entire film. Less impressive are the adult characters. The children’s Granny is a simple caricature of a fussy, old woman, and Conor is even worse, spending half of the film sulking and the other half making stupid decisions on behalf of his children.
But these are minor complaints. Song of the Sea is an impressive feat of animation, made all the more enjoyable by the fact that it’s not trying to sell anything (here’s looking at you, Lego Movie). Moore distinguishes himself here as an exciting talent to watch, not only for his storytelling prowess, but also for his commitment to craftsmanship. He’s bookended this film with an animation of a brush painting a flourish across the screen, as if to remind us of the hand behind the art. Fortunately for him and for us, the hard work always pays off when the story’s this darn enchanting.