The world may rightfully be in mourning for the end of Studio Ghibli, but it can rest assured that its demise won’t signal the end of groundbreaking 2-D animation. In what is becoming a landmark year for animation, Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea stands head and shoulders above its competitors, boasting design so gorgeous it’ll make your eyes water and some of the most charming storytelling you’ll see in a children’s film this year. I went into Song of the Sea expecting just this – one only need look at the trailer to realise that they’re in for a treat. What I didn’t expect was to be met with one of the very best films of the year, its beautiful design existing to serve storytelling equally as soulful and thoughtful.
The Studio Ghibli comparison isn’t superficial here – Song of the Sea has much in common Ghibli’s Isao Takahata’s swan song, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Both employ a radical, expressive hand-drawn aesthetic and have stories rooted in the folklore of their native countries (Takahata’s Japan, Moore’s Ireland). Both of them concern themselves with girls from spirit worlds attempting to reconcile their true nature with the human world where they belong. But whilst Princess Kaguya is a striking, it hues too closely to its source material, producing ponderous passages which digress from the modern sensibility informs the rest of the film. Song of the Sea deploys far more direct quest narrative and does a beautiful job of inserting the lore that its characters are drawn from into a recognisable world. Faery folk live in copses on traffic islands, lighthouses watch over ancient giants made of stone; its old Gods have human analogues in ferry drivers and crotchety grannies. It’s world is a modern one where magic lays dormant, sleeping beneath its hustle and bustle. One the film’s earliest thrills occurs when, upon hearing the film’s eponymous song, the world’s magic flickers and glimmers into life.
Such inventive world-building and ravishing style is enough for most animated films – what makes Song of the Sea a true great is its commitment to its story, rooting its most fanciful elements in emotional truth. At its heart is a boy called Ben who lives in a lighthouse with his father and his sister. His mother, it seems, died in childbirth, but in truth she was a mgical seal-spirit know as a selkie who was forced to leave them behind upon the birth of his sister, Saoirse, who is also unknowingly a selkie and cannot speak until she sings the faery-world home to Tír na nÓg.
The sadness that exists at the heart of this family is palpable throughout – Ben is quietly resentful of his sister and at least subconsciously blames her for his mother’s death, and their father is emotionally distant in their mother’s wake. In fact, bottled-up emotions form the whole film’s narrative thrust; its key antagonist is an owl-witch called Macha who turns her victims to stone by literally capturing their feelings in jars, and the story is peppered with tales of lost loves and things left unsaid. And all that pent-up sadness leads to an emotional climax more satisfying than any other I have witnessed this year. Again, it’s interesting to note how much it matches Princess Kaguya’s finale, but where that film is almost unforgivably depressing, Song of the Sea hits a perfect bittersweet note. Its final five minutes is an absolute tour-de-force, all of its disparate plot elements coming together to form a symphony few directors would be able to pull off with such grace.
There are so many pitfalls Moore could have fallen into in the making of Song of the Sea. Its charm could have easily lapsed into twee, its blending of modern and traditional elements could have been jarring, its melancholy could have weighed down its buoyancy. But Moore understands what makes the stories that inspire his film tick. Folktales are more than just whimsical stories, they connect us with our past and help us make sense of our present. And so Song of the Sea is more than just a gorgeous ode to Irish fairy tales; it stands alongside them, another hair on the Great Seanachaí’s head.