I wasn’t completely enamored with The Secret of Kells, Irish director Tomm Moore and his studio Cartoon Saloon’s 2009 debut animated feature. The visuals and character designs were striking and inventive (especially their interpretation of the mythical Crom Cruach), and Bruno Coulais’ score was terrific (he did similarly great work on Coraline and returns for this film), but outside of Abbot Cellach’s stubbornness that led to heartbreak and the mystery of Aisling, I never got fully invested in the story or characters. Moore’s second feature film, Song of the Sea, rectifies my complaints with Kells and then some. It’s just as visually interesting as Kells, but taken a leap forward and dealing with a Miyazaki-esque mix of modern and magical. I think this or The Tale of the Princess Kaguya could have and should have won over the likes of Big Hero 6 or How To Train Your Dragon 2 at the Oscars, though I’m immensely fond of both of those films. Though if an American film HAD to win last year, I would have given it to the not-even-nominated The Lego Movie.
One reason I feel like this film succeeds more than Kells on a character level is its protagonist, Ben (voiced by Moon Boy‘s David Rawle). I always felt that Brendan, the hero of Kells, was a mite too bland to carry his own film, which is why I found supporting characters like the Abbot and Aisling far more interesting. Ben, by contrast, has much more going on psychologically. He had a deep bond with his mother Bronagh (Irish singer Lisa Hannigan), a selkie spirit (seals who can take the form of human beings). Ben blames the birth of his sister Saiorse for her disappearance (which is not entirely inaccurate, as we see later in the film), as well as their father Conor (Brendan Gleeson, returning from Kells though with much less screentime) sliding into alcohol-fueled depression. As such, he’s frequently mean and condescending to her in the early part of the film. I found this shockingly refreshing; many young boy protagonists of animated films are cheerful and upbeat despite any hardships they might have had. Ben opens up around his dog, Cu, but is cold and resentful to Saiorse. He softens as the film goes on, inevitably, but I was pleasantly surprised with how far they took his nastiness in places.
The other characters are well-drawn and sympathetic. Conor is clearly still in love with Bronagh, and the shots we see of him at bars ache with loneliness. The children’s Granny (Fionnula Flanagan) seems harsh but wants what she feels is best for them, and this doesn’t include staying at a lighthouse all the time. The various magical spirits strike a nice balance between comedy and intrigue (the film being set around Halloween allows for some good gags of spirits hiding in plain sight). And the ostensible antagonist of the film, the owl witch Macha (also voiced by Flanagan; her relationship with her son, Mac Lir, whose cries and sounds are provided by Gleeson, is an uncommented-on parallel with Granny and Conor), is sympathetic and understandable even when she is doing wrong.
As noted the film is as visually lush and interesting as Kells, but I found them to stick in the mind a bit more. The scenes involving selkies and other spirits, particularly Macha and Mac Lir, are completely enchanting and allowed to move at a gentle, unhurried pace. One bit involving Macha regaining her lost emotions is particularly lovely. The character animation is fantastic as well; Ben’s disgruntled nature is perfectly conveyed by his scowls and terse movements, and Saiorse gains a lot of character from her physicality since she does not speak for roughly 90% of the film. The frequently wet, modern unnamed city that Granny takes the children to live in is just as interesting to look at and study as the magical forests and creatures. Coulais’ music, produced in collaboration with Irish folk group Kila, fits the various moods perfectly, especially the titular song, which is deployed to great effect in the film’s climax.
Speaking of which: this is another area where I felt the film improved on Kells. It’s much more focused and tense as Ben and Conor race to save both Saiorse from dying and to restore the spirits from their stone forms. It explodes into visual wonder not unlike the previously mentioned Miyazaki, and the conclusion is bittersweet yet feels completely earned. I also liked how simplified and unexplained certain things were. Mac Lir’s loss is never specified, but we feel his pain all the same, and how the magic works is not buried under confusing exposition.
All in all, Song of the Sea is a terrific step forward for Moore, Cartoon Saloon and Irish animation in general. I’m looking forward to whatever they have up their sleeves in the future.