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Song of the Sea movie review

song of the sea posterI’m a sucker for fairy-tale and folklore retellings, and a major sucker for selkie lore…so I had very high hopes for animated film Song of the Sea (Cartoon Saloon, December 2014), directed by Tomm Moore (whose The Secret of Kells was a 2009 Best Animated Feature Academy Award nominee) and cowritten by Moore and William Collins. I wasn’t disappointed — in fact, my expectations were far surpassed. And I’m not alone in my enthusiasm: Song of the Sea has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 98% and was nominated for this year’s Best Animated Feature Award.

Set in contemporary Ireland, the film begins on a craggy island with a lighthouse. The lighthouse-keeper Conor’s wife Bronagh (Lisa Hannigan) is expecting a baby, and their young son Ben is excited to meet his new sibling. Bronagh assures Ben that he will be “the best brother ever” and tells him a bedtime story about the god Mac Lir — myth and legend are clearly a comfortable part of their everyday lives. That night, Bronagh’s labor begins, and in distress, she runs into the sea and does not return. Conor discovers the baby girl, wrapped in a white selkie skin, on the beach.

On Saoirse’s (pronounced “Seer-sha”) sixth birthday, she sneaks out of bed and discovers the child-sized selkie’s coat. She dons her coat and — now with the ability to assume a seal’s form — goes for a joyful midnight swim, scaring the wits out of her family in the process. The children’s overbearing Granny insists that the island is not safe for Saoirse, and dad Conor regretfully agrees; Granny takes them to her home in the city.

Ben (David Rawle) is determined to get back to the island and to his endearingly goofy sheepdog Cú; Saoirse longs to return to the sea. The siblings set out for home, soon encountering some (also endearingly goofy) fairies who tell them that the goddess Macha is turning supernatural beings into stone, and only Saoirse can undo Macha’s magic with her selkie’s song. But since Saoirse is growing weak far from the ocean — not to mention that she doesn’t talk yet, let alone sing — this is a tall order. Now with added urgency, Ben and Saoirse (eventually reunited with Cú) continue their quest. They come across many figures from Celtic mythology, including the not-so-bad-after-all Macha, along the way.

In both story line and its execution, the movie does a remarkable job of intertwining specific threads of Celtic mythology and folklore with universal human themes. The relationship between dad Conor — still very much mourning the loss of Brongah and afraid he will lose Saoirse to the sea as well — and Granny, for instance, parallels that between the grieving god Mac Lir and his mother Macha; the similarities of their dynamics are echoed in the characters’ appearances, personality traits, and voices (Conor and Mac Lir are both voiced by Brendan Gleeson, Granny/Macha by Fionnula Flanagan).

And the film is just gorgeous. The animation is lush, inviting, and masterful — fans of Miyazaki’s work will find plenty to love here — with many traditional Celtic visual motifs subtly worked in. Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) does not speak for the majority of the film, but she doesn’t need to: her small face and big eyes are incredibly expressive. Rounding out the lovely presentation is an original score by composer Bruno Coulais and Irish folk band Kíla.

Song of the Sea has a very limited theatrical release, so it may be difficult to find at a theater near you (although I highly recommend seeing it on the big screen if you can). Happily, it’s out on DVD and iTunes today! And if you’re lucky enough to be close to The Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, you can check out the exhibit “Songs and Secrets” — featuring concept art from Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells — through June 21.

Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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Comments

  1. This looks 10 times more artistic and meaningful than Lego Movie.

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