Song of the Sea Dir. Tomm Moore

[GKIDS; 2014]

Styles: animation, family
Others: The Thief & the Cobbler, From Up on Poppy Hill, My Neighbor Totoro

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

—William Butler Yeats, “The Stolen Child”

Ireland is a nation of very, very stiff necks. For a country with a cyclical history of subjugation, assimilation, and rebellion ad nauseam, turning your head to look back at ancestors frozen in time with broken backs is a defeating experience. Stemming from the druids, a culture steeped in nature and has over the past centuries strayed from the forest and found itself within the modern global foundry. Although, even with Ireland’s determined eyes set on new chapters, there are always a few with the will to turn their head and preserve the dog-eared bits of their book.

Tomm Moore is something of a new, chimeric strain of archivist in Ireland. Poised as the spiritual heir to his nation’s previous cultural firekeepers, the 38-year-old director is forging a career awash in the preservation of traditional Ireland shone through a new-world medium: animation. Secret of the Kells planted a flag in the western cartoon world by creating a lush, immersive style reminiscent of The Thief and The Cobbler (one of my favorite films of all time) and painting the lines and shapes with traditional Irish folklore. The edges are a little rough and the narrative a bit awry, but in no uncertain terms Moore and his indie brigade, Cartoon Saloon, informed the world that Irish history and animation can go pound for pound with the heavyweights of the global industry.

Song of the Sea is one of the great sophomore filmic efforts of the 2010s. Set in 1987, the narrative follows the story of ten-year old Ben (David Rawle) and his half-Selkie (seal person) little sister Saoirse (pronounced “seer-shuh,” voiced by Lucy O’Connell), as they journey from their grandmother’s home in the seat of the city back to their rural, cliffside lighthouse to retrieve Saoirse’s seal coat. Magic, fairytale creatures, and echoes of the past reverberate through the hour and a half run-time, and though this is a children’s film (and a delightful one at that), very real stakes are apparent in Song of the Sea.

Moore makes no secret of the ardor for his influences and heroes. William Butler Yeats, one of the most celebrated romanticists of Irish culture, was a focal point as the director wrote the story (the epigraph of this review is the refrain of a Yeats poem quoted in the film). The narrative is a hand-sewn pastiche picked the stories of Irish folklore. In an interview with Cartoon Brew, Moore stated “Without folklore, there isn’t the same respect.” Without doubt, the mystic elements add a gravitas framing Song of the Sea as a new extension of the Irish Canon as opposed to simply an homage. However, not all of the influence apparent in the film is domestic.

Hideo Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are openly admired by Moore and his Cartoon Saloon team, and for good reason. Many similarities exist between the two artists and their respective entities: an original, captivating animation style, a grassroots beginning, and, perhaps most importantly, a desire to preserve their culture and translate it into a globally tangible narrative. My Neighbor Totoro is often mentioned by Moore and critics alike as a reference point for Song of the Sea. An apt comparison, but I couldn’t stop thinking of Miyazaki’s penultimate From Up on Poppy Hill. The time frame finds Japanese youth in the 60s, existing in a pastoral vision of the country just before major economic growth shook Japan out of its idyllic haze and cultural roots. The timing for Song of the Sea is equally important: Protagonist Ben is ten in 1987 (just like Moore was), eight years prior to the period known as the “Celtic Tiger” (Ireland’s period of dramatic economic growth in the mid to late 1990s). Not only is the film a championing of Irish culture, but also a wistful, personal, powerful love letter to a time before Ireland was pressed onto the global stage. Miyazaki has been rightfully praised for his deft forging of personal and national consciousness into universal experience, and Moore is less than a stone’s throw from the master’s trail.

I’ve mentioned little so far of the animation itself, and leaving it out of the review would be an immense injustice. Painstakingly drawn by hand and tapping the geometric aesthetics and color palettes of predecessors like The Thief & the Cobbler, Song of the Sea is a vibrant, bold reaction to the current trend of 3D animation. Whereas studios like Disney or Pixar pride their films on an “adult” layer for parents, Song is visually powerful enough to draw in viewers across different age demographics without innuendo-laden dialogue. The animation is fluid without feeling slick, retaining a rustic quality in every beautifully-drawn environment as they sidle by on-screen. While most animation nowadays is a NASA space-cloth comforter with electronic interface, Song of the Sea is a grandmother’s hand-sewn quilt: pastiched, familiar, and warm with memory.

I was crestfallen when Miyazaki announced The Wind Rises would be his final work. Knowing the talent and sheer work the man put into creating an artistic institution worthy of simultaneously preserving and continuing his country’s culture is a feat of laurels in itself, wholly apart from Studio Ghibli’s filmography. Not yet forty, Tomm Moore hasn’t so much laid claim to the inheritance with Song of the Sea, but instead humbly, beautifully told the world more Miyazakis will come from all across the globe. A certain distance is expected in criticism, but I’m so excited to see such a young director and his team craft such a beautiful film this early in their game. In Song of the Sea, Moore has told his country there is no shame in looking back; there is pride.

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