It really doesn’t matter that Song of the Sea tells a story as thin as the line of a pencil or that this tribute to the wistful magic of Irish folklore is so transparently indebted to the films of Hayao Miyazaki that its most crucial moments feel like they were made in Japan. What matters is that Tomm Moore has followed up 2009’s The Secret of Kells with another heartfelt and gorgeously rendered work of 2-D animation, its every blue-gray blotch of watercolor a defiant rejoinder to the rounded plastic sameness that dominates contemporary cartoons.
Modernizing an ancient myth with a visual approach that splits the difference between cute and Cubism, Song of the Sea tells the tale of a widowed lighthouse keeper (voiced by the perfectly tender Brendan Gleeson) who decides that the blustery Irish coast is no place to raise his precocious 10-year-old son, Ben (David Rawle), and his curiously mute daughter, Saoirse, who may or may not be half-seal. The kids are shipped to Dublin, and the brunt of the film chronicles their enchanted journey back home, the odyssey unraveling into an exquisitely painted mess when the siblings are waylaid by an old owl witch with a broken heart (Fionnula Flanagan).
No matter how frayed the storytelling becomes, the animation is always suffused with a gentle melancholy; Song of the Sea isn’t just pretty, it’s genuinely transporting. If Moore’s film is so busy ladling on the sweet ethereal frosting of its world that Ben and Saoirse feel less like characters than they do ornamental toppings, it’s still a compelling reminder that flat can be fabulous.
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