Song of the Sea is simply the story of a family; the dynamic between a brother and sister, their father and the loss they have experienced. It just so happens to be placed in Ireland, and animated, inspired and enriched by the magic and myth of Irish folklore.”
Ben (David Rawle) comes to learn that the mythical stories and characters of his childhood may not be so far from the truth and that Saoirse, the younger sister of whom he is so resentful in the way that only an older sibling can be, is a key player. When the children are uprooted from their remote lighthouse home by their concerned but meddling grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan), they give short thrift to their new surrounds in Dublin and make a quick escape back across Ireland. During their journey, the stories of old Ireland become real before their eyes. Owls, it turns out, were not to be trusted long before they peered eerily down on the inhabitants of Twin Peaks. Here they are, the flying monkey equivalent to the seemingly menacing witch (Fionnula Flanagan, again) who has set her eyes on capturing young Saoirse. Encounters with seanachaí, mischievous fairies and the world of selkies piece the story and stakes together.
There’s beauty and story to relish. The movie has its own magic in how it brings settings to life; Ireland’s countryside is cast in a snooker table-green baise dotted with colour. Dublin languishes in a grimy fug, and towards the close of the movie the differing tempers of the sea is wonderfully captured. Set over Halloween, the movie asserts a claim for Ireland in telling stories about myths, legends and tragic characters. There are ethereal moments, aided by beautiful scoring and music from Kíla, but equally Irish quirks and humour, from blasé Dublin bus drivers to dithering old men that you might see propped on a stool by a bar, but are instead fairies worried for their safety with some important expositional duties. It’s a joy to let the film envelop you; there is a sincere take on a family unit and the minds of kids – no pop culture, no layered humour, just adventure and wonder.
The trajectory of events is not always clear; the journey home meanders both literally and figuratively but there’s no end to rich human moments – Ben bemoaning his sister’s existence; the familiar mannerisms of every Irish grandmother, and the great nobility of the father of the house and how his quiet loss is voiced so well by Brendan Gleeson (Make sure to sit through the credits to match the other characters with those familiar voices and enjoy a last taste of the soundtrack.). One of the myths recalled is that of a lovelorn giant turned to stone he was so grief stricken; in a way, the father’s character is in similar gloom. He has a turnaround of sorts, but the greatest lift comes from watching Ben realize his duty to defend his sister and eventually the family confidently take hold of their fate.
Every animated feature wants to appeal across audiences and Song of the Sea does so ably by reminding adults and introducing new audiences to Irish folklore and the bounty we have for telling stories. It expands the lens on what Irish movies and storytelling can and should be about. The uniquely Irish stamp on events and characters is refreshing, and the movie is brave enough to be bittersweet and, in doing, so pays homage to the great stories it reveres.