SONG OF THE SEA: A Beautifully Profound (and Profoundly Beautiful) Animated Fable
At this year's Oscars ceremony, five worthy films vied for the coveted Best Animated Feature award. Of course, we all know the winner, but there was one nominee in particular that no one seemed to have even heard of, let alone seen. It was the outlier.
At this year’s Oscars ceremony, five worthy films vied for the coveted Best Animated Feature award. Of course, we all know the winner, but there was one nominee in particular that no one seemed to have even heard of, let alone seen. It was the outlier. The odd duck. The unassuming little film called Song of the Sea.
Well, I watched it, at any rate, although Song of the Sea isn’t really a film that one “watches” so much as experiences. It’s a stirring and gorgeously animated fable that harbors much more depth and meaning that it may seem at first glance. In fact, Song of the Sea is so great that it utterly transcends award shows, industry politics, and endless bickering about which film should have won the Oscar or which film was snubbed of a nomination. It is simply that good.
Rooted in Folklore
Helmed by Irish filmmaker Tomm Moore, Song of the Sea shows deep affection for the legends and lore of Moore‘s homeland. The story centers around a young girl named Saoirse (pronounced “Sheer-sha”), voiced by Lucy O’Connell, who lives by the sea with her father and brother. It turns out that she’s the last of the “selkies,” meaning that not only can she magically transform into a seal but she is also the only one who can free trapped spirits from their earthly prison by singing a “song of the sea.” The only trouble is, she’s mute. So, along with her brother Ben (voiced by David Rawle), Saoirse goes on a journey whereupon she encounters magic shells, an old woman/owl hybrid, and many more wonders and dangers in order to find her voice and restore order.
As you may have gathered, Song of the Sea is… well, a bit strange. But its mythology is so dense and its characters so realized that it seems eternal, like a bedtime story told to you so often and at such a young age that it remains a part of you even well into adulthood. The story itself is simple enough – it’s essentially your standard “hero’s journey” – but Moore sets this story in a vast, creative world, inhabits it with colorful characters, and uses elements of folklore as a framework to convey weighty themes of grief and loss.
A Wonder to Behold
Like Moore‘s previous film The Secret of Kells (which was also nominated for Best Animated Feature in 2010), Song of the Sea is brought to life with a distinctive and painterly visual style. The 2D animation here is simply awe-inspiring and often surreal in its beauty. Fantastical characters and sprawling environments – the drab city, the green countryside, the crashing oceans – are brilliantly composited.
And speaking of composition, Bruno Coulais, who also wrote the stunning musical score for Henry Selick‘s Coraline (2009), makes Song of the Sea an indelible treat to the ears as well as the eyes.
Compared to the hyperactivity that plagues far too many kids’ movies, the film is paced somewhat moderately. Indeed, even my patience was tested during a sequence in which Saoirse goes missing and Ben spends the next several scenes calling for her: “Saoirse! Saoirse! Saoirse!” However, the warm humor and the occasional scary (yet never traumatizing) moment will keep children of all ages invested, while adults will be awestruck by the film’s artistry and the deeper motivations behind the story.
“Remember Me in Your Stories and in Your Songs”
These deeper motivations are what gives Song of the Sea its weight and poignancy, and are expertly personified using clever symbolism. According to the film’s mythology, when humans become overcome by sadness and despair brought on by the loss of a loved one, they turn to stone, unable to move onto the “next world.” And what of the Owl Woman, a witch who traps “bad” emotions and thoughts of despair (visually represented by dark rain clouds, turbulent winds, et cetera) in bottles and hoards them away?
The deeper meaning behind these seemingly simple “fairy tale concepts” becomes clear once the bottles begin to break and the titular song of the sea is sung. They’re metaphors for how sometimes we get so wrapped up in our grief that we become hardened and stuck to the point of immobility. For how empty it feels for one to live life by “bottling up” emotions that may be unwelcome or uncomfortable (and is that really living?).
The film comforts those of its audience who have either experienced these overwhelming feelings of grief or have yet to do so. It wraps us up in a warm embrace, squeezes us gently, and in our ear softly sings, “Only when we learn to dispel our demons, heal old wounds, ‘break our bottles,’ and let go of feelings of guilt and regret can we truly be free.”
Not bad for an odd duck.
Have you seen Song of the Sea? Which film do you think deserved the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature?
(top image source: GKIDS Films)
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