Song of the Sea, animated fantasy, rated PG, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
In Irish and Scottish legend, a selkie is half-human and half-seal, a being able to live on land but always longing for the sea. Selkie men seduce unhappy human women, and female selkies sometimes marry human men, who must hide their wives’ sealskins to keep them from returning to the water. The stories of these romances are generally tragic, and it is often the children of these couplings who suffer.
In Song of the Sea, the second animated feature by Tomm Moore (his first, The Secret of Kells, was nominated for an Oscar in 2010), a mother dies in childbirth and the baby girl, Saoirse (voiced by Lucy O’Connell), grows up picked on and resented by her older brother, Ben (David Rawle), who misses his mother. Throughout the film Ben recalls the folk stories his mother told him before her death, and he treasures a shell she gave him, which he likes to hold to his ear. His sister also values the shell and is always trying to take it from him. When Saoirse, who has never spoken, develops an undeniable affinity for the water at age six, their still-grieving but well-intentioned father (Brendan Gleeson), who spends his time at the local tavern, allows their meddling grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) to take them from their home in a lighthouse to live in Dublin. It is then up to Ben to lead his sister back to her birthright.
The animation is mostly hand-drawn, with some CGI enhancement, and is resolutely 2-D. It resembles a storybook, with inspiration taken from such painters as Picasso, Klee, and Kandinsky. The film has none of the zip and flash typical of animated blockbusters, so many of which rely on sensory overload to capture a viewer’s imagination. The story might be a bit thin for adults, but the old-fashioned approach is comforting — although the film seems to strive for that sense of serenity to enchant, an effort that can feel somewhat cloying at times. Unlike The Secret of Roan Inish — a live-action 1994 movie about the legend of the selkies directed by John Sayles, which offered a darker sense of adventure for more mature viewers — this movie is appropriate and accessible for very young audiences.
The children’s journey is foretold by prophecy. Saoirse must sing to free the fairy sprites, who will otherwise be turned to stone by the Celtic goddess Macha. Most of the battles in Song of the Sea emphasize the importance of expressing feelings rather than keeping them inside. In the end, the sea song heals the ravaged hearts of its characters and the rocky islands upon which they dwell.