Five years ago Irish director Tomm Moore's debut film, The Secret of Kells, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. In a déjà vu-like turn of events, the director's sophomore work, 2014's Song of the Sea, was also up for the same award, though this time arguably amidst a much deeper field that included Big Hero 6 (2015's Oscar winner), The Boxtrolls and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
Like Moore's first venture into animation, Song of the Sea employs Celtic folklore to weave a magical journey for its child protagonists, brother and sister duo Ben and Saoirse. Song of the Sea's main divergence from Kells, which was set at an eighth-century Irish abbey, takes place in modern times, allowing it to give us a slightly more relatable tone for young audiences.
The shining achievement of Moore's two works lies in the two-dimensional, elegantly simple, hand-drawn art of luscious, watercolor-like scenes. An original score of Celtic music further enhances the mythical nature of Song's plot.
In the film's opening moments, viewers are introduced to its characters' ongoing struggle to cope with significant loss. Ben and Saoirse are motherless, and as such, big brother Ben is tasked with babysitting his mute, 6-year-old sister while their father, Conor, shrouds his grief in his work manning the family's lighthouse. Neither Conor nor Ben seem too concerned about Saoirse's inability to speak, and audiences won't discover the meaning behind her silence until much further into the story.
In one of the film's most mesmerizing vignettes, Saoirse discovers a trunk belonging to her absent mother. Inside is a magical white coat that lets her change form into a seal when exposed to water. Like her mother, Saoirse is a selkie — a human-seal creature from Celtic lore. Donning the coat, Saoirse romps in the sea with a pod of adorable, friendly seals who are arguably deserving of more screen time. Shortly after, blinded by sorrow and concerned for Saoirse's newfound obsession with the sea, Conor ships the children against their will to live in the city with their grandmother.
From then onward, the film focuses on Ben and Saoirse's trial-filled journey back home to their island in the sea. The farther they travel, and as Ben's attitude toward his little sister grows increasingly overbearing, she rapidly deteriorates in health. A cast of magical fairies and witches Ben remembers from his mother's old stories emerge to aid the siblings on their journey home. They tell Ben he must race against time to save Saoirse, who must be reunited with the magic coat to sing her selkie "song" if she's to continue living.
Song of the Sea is a majestic, emotional allegory of what happens when we allow loss and fear to hold us prisoner from the world around us. Playing only at the Magic Lantern. ♦