When The Lego Movie so famously and unfairly got robbed of a Best Animated Film nomination, I immediately started asking if the actual nominees could really have been so much better. How to Train Your Dragon 2? Yeah, that was a really good movie and it should have been neck-and-neck with Lego Movie for the statuette. Big Hero 6? Sure, that one also deserved a nomination, though I maintain it didn’t deserve to win. Ditto for The Boxtrolls. Princess Kaguya? Haven’t seen it, but I can’t begrudge Studio Ghibli for their token nomination.
That just leaves Song of the Sea. I had not heard of this movie before. I don’t know if anyone had heard of this movie before. It sure as hell didn’t come to Portland until well after the Oscars themselves had wrapped up, though that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. In any case, I refused to believe that this obscure little movie could possibly be better than the colorful, uplifting, energetic awesomeness that was The Lego Movie.
Then I heard that it was made by Tomm Moore, and everything suddenly made more sense. His previous film, The Secret of Kells, was another animated feature that racked up huge critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination before most American audiences ever got the chance to experience for themselves how incredibly good it was. Even now, it’s a criminally underseen and underappreciated movie.
When the opportunity finally arose, I had to go see if this next film was just as good, and if it really did deserve to beat Lego Movie for a shot at Hollywood’s top prize. I was very pleasantly surprised.
Our story opens with Ben, our protagonist voiced by David Rawle. He’s getting tucked into bed by his mother (Bronagh, voiced by Lisa Hannigan), a woman so sweet and kind and beautiful that she might as well be wearing a sign that says “I’m going to die” right on top of her big pregnant belly. Sure enough, it’s six years later and Ben is now caring for a younger sister, name of Saoirse, in the absence of their mom. He’s not exactly thrilled with the arrangement, however.
It’s Saoirse’s sixth birthday, which is also the sixth anniversary of mother’s death, so it’s all manner of sad, happy, and awkward for the whole family. Between his chronic grieving and his concern for her well-being, the father (Conor, voiced by Brendan Gleeson) showers Saoirse with attention. This naturally gets Ben jealous of little sister, and he’s already upset with her for being the reason why Mom’s not around anymore. Oh, and there’s also the matter of their grandma (voiced by Fionnula Flanagan), who insists that the family should move out of the lighthouse and live in the city, where it’s safer.
And Saoirse? Well, she’s mute. So it’s kinda hard to tell what she thinks.
(Side note: Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Cu, the loyal dog who serves as Ben’s trusted confidante and occasional steed.)
Though I joke about the cliched nature of Bronagh’s death, the film was very smart to open with such a strong emotional hook. Yes, Ben acts like a total brat, but it’s played in such a way that we can understand it comes from a place of overwhelming heartache. In fact, the whole film is quite heavily focused on the nature of emotions, particularly how they can be so painful in matters of love and loss.
We could always use more cinema to examine such concepts in a kid-friendly manner, and this movie absolutely delivers. The story finds all sorts of clever ways to comment on fear and grief in ways that ring true while using magic and fairy tale storytelling to soften the blow.
Yes, this movie is absolutely a fairy tale. This is made obvious quite early on by way of the songs and stories that Bronagh tells to Ben, only for him and Saoirse to find out that they were all true. The film’s most prominent basis was clearly the story of the selkie, but the plot unfolds as if half a dozen other Celtic myths got thrown into the mix as well. The whole story has a wonderful way of blending so many disparate tales into a single coherent and original whole. There are clearly rules at play, even if the mechanics behind those rules are never quite explained. The various magical characters are all made to seem quirky, conflicted, and flawed in their own ways, but never without losing that sense of reverence. In short, it’s all very Miyazakian, and that’s no bad thing.
Of course, the more prominent comparisons will be made to The Secret of Kells. If you haven’t seen it yet, get on that right away. If you have seen it, however, you’ll find many of the same strengths here. The animation is gorgeous throughout, presented with the same whimsical kind of illustrated style that made Kells so beautiful. There’s absolutely no attempt at realism on display, and that does a lot to help sell the magical nature of the story and characters. Additionally, because there are so many raw emotions at play in the story (to say nothing of the mute central character), it’s fortunate that the characters are all so expressive without the limitations of realistic movements and anatomy. Last but not least, though some of the later shots can get a touch jerky, the animation is generally very smooth and great to watch.
Unfortunately, a lot of nitpicks from Kells carry over as well. In particular, both films had a knack for setting up potentially huge problems with solutions that turn out to be pathetically simple. Pretty much everything in this movie is quickly solved by some arbitrary action of magic, because a main character starts to believe in himself, or because some supporting character comes from nowhere to help in the nick of time. It’s tempting to call the storytelling lazy when everything happens so easily, yet those solutions are all so crucial for the overall symbolism and the characters’ development that the film almost — almost — gets away with it.
So is Song of the Sea as good as The Lego Movie? Or even as good as The Secret of Kells? No, but it would take a rare kind of film to equal either of those. Both films had an uplifting and inspirational spirit of creativity that I took more of a liking to, but that doesn’t make Song any less of a marvel. It’s a beautiful, magical, emotionally charged fairy tale with a ton of surprises that somehow addresses very heavy themes with a sense of wonder and fun.
Looking back at the nominations for Best Animated Feature of 2014, it’s clear that it was a category with no losers. It was a grand year for animation in 2014, and Song of the Sea is another reason why.