‘Song of the Sea’ movie review: Oscar-nominated Irish film a pure delight

Two feature films, and two Academy Award nominations: Irish animator Tomm Moore’s second feature following his Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells has also received some much-deserved praise: Song of the Sea is an enchanting, magical little fairy tale that does what films do best, enveloping us in its mythology and transporting us to another time and place.

That would be the shores of Ireland sometime during the last half century, but the actual location isn’t as important as the richly detailed world Moore has created through some gorgeous hand-drawn animation. The style here is part Richard Williams (The Thief and the Cobbler) and part Studio Ghibli, but Moore ultimately carves out a unique look and feel all of his own. 

And Song of the Sea looks incredible: the beautiful animation accomplished with pencils and watercolors is complimented by sparse use of CGI to create a look reminiscent of a children’s storybook. Continuing to develop the style from Kells, Song of the Sea is deeper, richer, and more vividly realized, earmarking the director as a major talent in the animation field. 

Based around the Irish mythology of selkies – creatures that live as seals in the ocean but humans on land (see also: The Secret of Roan Inish, Ondine) – Moore’s original story here was drafted by screenwriter Will Collins.

The film opens on a small island on the Irish coast, only accessible by a one-car lorry, where lighthouse keeper Conor (affectionately voiced by Brendan Gleeson) happily lives with a family that includes young son Ben (David Rawle) and pregnant wife Bronagh (Lisa Hannigan). But Bronagh disappears one night, and Ben wakes up with a new sister but no mother in sight.

Six years later, Ben’s best (and only) friend is his giant Irish sheepdog Cu, and his six-year-old sister Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) has yet to learn how to speak. The family’s grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) insists that the lighthouse is no place for the kids to live, and after a night time incident involving Saoirse’s initiation into the world of selkies, Conor agrees and sends them packing to the big city. 

The setup is familiar, but what follows is a magical whirlwind involving a shell flute, seal coats, the sea God Mac Lir (also voiced by Gleeson), and the owl witch Macha (Flanagan) who traps fairy spirits in jars. It’s hard to identify with Moore’s particular brand of reality – we don’t always know, for instance, when a character may be in danger – but it’s a pure delight to be so fully transported to his world. 

The original soundtrack by French composer Bruno Coulais & Irish folk musician Kíla, collaborating once again after scoring Moore’s previous film, matches the animation in quiet beauty. Music plays an integral role in the story, and the collaboration here is a memorable, haunting concoction with folk Irish roots.

While the mainstream mediocrity Big Hero 6 (expectedly) won this year’s Best Animated Film Oscar, it’s nice to see the Academy giving at least some recognition to the real gems in the animated world, films like this one and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Song of the Sea is a one-of-a-kind treasure that deserves the widest audience possible; this innately Irish film is also the perfect vehicle to deliver the country’s unique mythology to the world. 

While rated PG in the US, there’s almost nothing in Song of the Sea that would offend any viewers. This one is a pure delight for all ages, and the type of handmade animated feature we see far too little of on the big screen these days.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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