Song of the Sea (2014, directed by Tomm Moore) expands on the design aesthetic of Moore's The Secret of Kells, while diving even deeper into waters of Irish mythology. Like that previous film, Song of the Sea is visually ravishing, though to an even further extent. Unlike that film, Song of the Sea occasionally invites comparisons to other films, particularly films by Hayao Miyazaki. The film can withstand the comparison, but it's not the same kind of singular experience as Kells, nor does it have the overarching design-as-theme element. Don't get me wrong: it's beautiful; it's one of the most beautiful films of recent vintage. But its beauty is beauty for its own sake rather than as an integrated element of the story. Whether or not this is a flaw in the film, I can't really say. Beauty is its own justification a lot of the time.
The story in Song of the Sea follows the adventures of young Ben and his sister, Saoirse, who live with their father in a lighthouse on an island off the coast of Ireland. Ben and Saoirse's mom vanished on the occasion of Saoirse's birth. Before vanishing, she fills his head with stories and myths. She entrusts a shell to his keeping, telling him that he can hear the song of the sea in the shell. It's a musical shell, too. You can play songs on it. She also tells Ben to be the best big brother he can be to Saoirse. Kids being kids, he's not so good at it. Like many big brothers, he resents looking after his little sister. He pranks her. He's negligent towards her. The dog, Cú, is a better guardian toward Saoirse. Ben's resolve is put to the test on Saoirse's birthday, when their cranky grandmother comes to visit, convinced that an island is no place to raise children. Saoirse, for her part, is a curious girl even though she doesn't speak. She pokes around in Ben's room and finds the shell. She pokes around in her mother's things and finds a white coat that fits her perfectly. She's drawn to the sea when she wears it, and when she swims, she is transformed into a white seal. She's a selkie. Unfortunately, she's separated from her cloak after she's found sleeping in it on the beach. Her father packs both of the kids off to live with their grandmother in Dublin. In Dublin, Saoirse is spotted by a group of fairies, who see her and her song as the liberation of their kind, who have mostly been turned to stone by the witch/goddess, Macha, in revenge for her son, the sea god, Mac Lir. Saoirse begins to waste away, separated from her cloak, and Ben resolves to take her home to the sea so she can find her voice. The journey, on Halloween, brings them into conflict with Macha and the owls that are her minions...
The mythological roots of Song of the Sea are deep. The selkie myth is only the most obvious of it's many skeins of story and legend (skeins of story as literal things play a role in the plot, by the way). This film resurrects gods and fairies and witches and psychopomps of all sorts. Hell, the movie opens with a version of William Butler Yeats's "The Stolen Child." In the same way that The Secret of Kells was a movie whose meta-narrative was about drawing and design, this is a film whose meta-narrative is about stories and storytelling. A small element of the plot of the film hinges on keeping stories alive by handing them down to one's children. Forgetting stories--again, literally--is a major impediment to more than one character in the film. Although the film is not long and never boring, it's threads of narrative do tend to sprawl. It also occasionally seems derivative: the fairy lights that guide our young heroes, for instance, recall the will o' the wisps in Brave and the forest spirits in Princess Mononoke. Studio Ghibli exerts a strong influence on this film: Its conception of Macha, the witch/goddess, is very much of a piece with the Witch of the Wastes in Spirited Away, as is it's refusal to paint even its villains as villains. In a way, this element of the film demonstrates how universal some mythologies are. Perhaps we all dream in the same archetypes.
If the construction of story in Song of the Sea is less than ideal (debatable, I suppose), the film more than makes up for it with its visuals. This movie is breathtakingly gorgeous. It's almost a manifesto for the the possibilities of 2-d animation in a world where computers have made 3-d animation the default. True, this film is as much a product of a computer as, say, Toy Story, but it's aesthetic seems more handmade than it is because of the flatness of the spaces it presents. That flatness is deceptive, though, because the film often opens on vistas that seem infinitely vast. The designs of the characters in this movie are not even remotely realistic, but that tends to make them more appealing. They're defined by gesture and shape more than by detailed features, which lets the audience imprint themselves on them more than they might in a more realistic idiom. Many of the design elements of the film are purely decorative, included for no other reason that they lend texture or visual interest to the frame. Moore and his collaborators are never precocious about this, though. Their flourishes always seem to fit with in some broader design. I regret that I wasn't able to see this film on a huge movie screen. It's obviously designed for it.
As with many another idiom, it's hard to distinguish the fact that we're living in a golden age of creative endeavor. Animation, now that it has broken the hegemony of Disney, has diversified into an embarrassment of riches in the last decade or so. Between Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, this year stands as a high water mark of the art form.
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