'Song of the Sea': Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A gorgeously rendered animated feature from Ireland

After making the Oscar-nominated "The Secret of Kells," director Tomm Moore sticks to Irish folklore for his latest film

Song of the Sea is another satisfying smack in the face of computer-generated 3D animation from Irish director Tomm Moore, after his earlier, Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells. Working with wondrous watercolor backgrounds and 2D animation in which the impressions of depth and perspective are almost exclusively suggested through overlapping flat surfaces, this pleasingly old-school item again relies on Irish folklore and legends to color a familiar story about a young boy venturing out into a dark and enchanted world. Slightly more accessible than Kells in the story department and just as gorgeous, this GKids title stands a solid chance of capturing some of that earlier film’s success both on the awards circuit and at the box office.

Ben (voiced by David Rawle) is the smart-alecky, occasionally grumpy 10-year-old of the burly if forlorn Conor (Brendan Gleeson, who voiced the Abbot in Kells), a widower who mans a lonely lighthouse on an island off the Irish coast. As shown in a brief prologue, Ben’s mother (Lisa Hannigan) died when giving birth to his kid sister, Saoirse, who’s now six but has never spoken a word. Audiences quickly learn -- though Ben doesn’t until much later -- that the little girl has inherited a special gift from her mother: she’s a "selkie," a seal-child who becomes human when on land (and here needs a special coat to turn back into a seal in the water).

Things start to go haywire when the kids’ bossy grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) manages to take them to Dublin, away from the dreary and dangerous lighthouse and the sea. But thankfully for the siblings there’s a special shell that their mother gave them which, when blown like a horn, is able to summon luminous little particles that dance in the air like fireflies and that seem to indicate the way back home.

However, the way back home is an adventure- and peril-filled affair, as Ben and Saoirse discover that many of the creatures their mother told Ben stories about -- which, in a beautiful touch, were richly illustrated by the entire family on the walls of their lighthouse home -- actually really exist and some of them might need their help or can help them. The narrative’s general rites-of-passage layout is of course extremely familiar, though, especially for foreign audiences, many of the stories-within-stories and characters that dot this particular journey will feel new as well as delightful.

Something similar happens in terms of the visuals, overseen by French-born, Ireland-based production designer Adrien Merigeau, who also worked on Kells and who here combines familiar 2D elements with details that make them look fresh and often quite extraordinary. The backgrounds, in watercolors, have a slightly hazy quality that suggests mist and the general dampness that are both typical of Ireland. The contours of both some of the background elements and some details of the characters are highlighted by the choice to often keep the outlines a couple of shades lighter (rather than either darker or entirely black). This works especially well for the story’s many dark stones, which have salmon-colored outlines (with motifs partially inspired by Pictish stone carving) that clearly betray the mythical creatures that are hiding within them even as they literally stand petrified.

Even more so than in Kells, the characters themselves show a clear debt to the anime of Studio Ghibli, with the occasional touch of modernist painters such as Klee or Kandinsky, who were unafraid of colors and shapes and who preferred emotional intensity over photographic likeness. Though foregrounds and backgrounds are easy enough to distinguish because elements overlap, there’s a very intentional flatness to the way in which the pictorial space is rendered as things simply placed behind or on top of each other (one could almost claim the film’s in "anti-3D"). For an even more pronounced touch of funky cubism, shapes such as the lid of a trash can, for example, are drawn as a full circle (i.e., an overhead view) rather than a more traditional sideways view which would turn it into an oval shape, smartly infusing the film with both a child-like perspective while winking to those in the audience with a knowledge of art history.

One of the most striking visual elements is the film’s attention to light, from the floating particles to the sunlight that streams in through the windows through an aurora borealis-like explosion in the sky during the film’s straightforward but extremely affecting closing scenes. Even if older audiences might find the story somewhat thin, there’s so much to enjoy on a purely audiovisual level that few will complain, with the feather-light score from Bruno Coulais and Irish band Kila, who earlier collaborated on Kells, another major asset.

Production companies: Cartoon Saloon, Melusine Productions, The Big Farm, Superprod, Norlum

Cast: David Rawle, Brendan Gleeson, Fionnula Flanagan, Pat Shortt, Jon Kenny, Liam Hourican, Colm O’Snodaigh, Lucy O’Connell, Kevin Swierszcz, Lisa Hannigan

Director: Tomm Moore

Screenplay: Will Collins

Producers: Tomm Moore, Ross Murray, Paul Young, Stephan Roelants, Serge Ume, Marc Ume, Isabelle Truc, Clement Calvet, Jeremie Fajner, Frederik Villumsen, Claus Toksvig Kjaer

Production designer: Adrien Merigeau

Editor: Darragh Byrne

Music: Bruno Coulais, Kila

Sales: West End Films

 

No rating, 93 minutes

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