Review: Song Of The Sea

I nearly fell asleep watching Song Of The Sea.

But wait, before you go taking that the wrong way, let me explain a couple of things. 1) I had a late night and an early start (for no good reason either), 2) I settled down in the too-sparsely-populated cinema very shortly after a satisfying brunch that my stomach then went to town on pleasingly, 3) Song Of The Sea is like some wonderful lullaby, helped in no small way by the dreamy, lilting, wholly relaxing score by Bruno Coulais. Like the sea it ebbs and flows and swells and soars, and, at times, achieves simple serenity. It reminded me fondly of the feeling conjured by Joe Hisaishi’s scores for so many Studio Ghibli films, and put me in that too-tranquil frame of mind that those movies sometimes conjure. Heavy eyelids indeed.

This isn’t the first comparison to Ghibli’s output leveled at Tomm Moore’s latest feature and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Unless you’re coming at the material from a very different perspective, that can be regarded as nothing but high praise, and it’s justly earned. Yet, Song Of The Sea doesn’t simply ride on the coattails of Miyazaki, Takahata and co. Moore deserves more credit than that. If his work shares a kinship with the values that mark out Ghibli’s work (family, nature, emotional intelligence), it does so while staking its own claim in the competitive field of top-drawer animation. I’m sure the folks over at Pixar will have asked for a sit down with him by now.

So while my eyelids were heavy, I refused to let them hold sway, as there was a rich find in front of me, so long as I was a little patient. Song Of The Sea follows the adventures of siblings Ben (David Rawle) and Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell), children to lighthouse-keeping father Conor (Brendan Gleeson); a family unit still overcoming the loss of their mother figure, who departed around the time of Saoirse’s birth. Now, some years later, the film finds them quietly reaching a crisis point. Granny whisks the children away to allow Conor some time to collect himself, yet Ben soon comes to realise that Saoirse’s well-being is linked intrinsically to a special coat that their father has kept hidden away – a sort of seal onesie – and so the two embark on a perilous trip home, uncovering the mute Saoirse’s uncanny powers along the way.

The design is beautiful, reminiscent of dozens of hand-drawn children’s books from my youth. Watching the film I was transported back to mornings spent in libraries, turning pages of picture books, exploring creative worlds laid out on those pages. Moore’s style weaves smooth animation with painterly settings. The whole thing is defiantly, proudly of its heritage. Moore is Irish and the film’s funding is in part Norwegian. There’s a swirl of Gaelic and Nordic influences ever-present within Songs Of The Sea. A sense of folklore worth investing in.

The story tussles its way through a number of broader themes, so while ostensibly this is a road trip designed and aimed at the young, grown-ups will be able to take home some of the richer elements under discussion. Most keenly, there’s a sequence (potentially the scariest for the very young) in which Ben and Saoirse meet an owlish old witch who extracts emotions which she then bottles up in numerous jars. The caged feelings manifest within the glass as stormy weather. Weaving his story, Moore assures the kids will be gripped by the adventure, but simultaneously builds an understanding that negative emotions are as much a part of a person’s unity as positive ones. In this respect Songs Of The Sea isn’t a million miles away from Pixar’s Inside Out.

But there’s more to look at here. Familial obligation. Responsibility. Understanding and choosing your path in life. One of the nicest developments is Ben’s, going from a sulky, reluctant brother, to a caring, devoted one as the drama notches upward. And while a majority of the first hour is pleasant and amiable, it is the last half hour in which Songs Of The Sea becomes something of a mini-symphony. I was reminded of the beautiful, expressive video game Journey produced a few years ago by thatgamecompany. A celebration of journey (unsurprisingly), discovery and harmony, Journey is a blissful experience that hits tremendous highs at its end. Songs Of The Sea works similar magic, exploding into colour as events swell, pushing the film from pleasant to genuinely absorbing.

A little treat then, worth making time for. With this and his previous The Secret of Kells under his belt, Moore should be in the position to write his own ticket. He’s certainly marked himself out as a major player in modern animation. Keep your eyes open for this one.

Score:  3

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