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Song of the Sea
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by Jay Seaver

"Maybe the best animated film of 2014."
5 stars

There have generally been one or two movies like "Song of the Sea" among the nominees every year since the Oscars started giving out an award for best animated feature, and they're the best argument for the award's existence. No, this smaller film from Ireland that relatively few voters had seen had little chance to win, but being nominated makes it easier for it to get noticed later. That's when people notice it and realize that it's terrific.

It starts on a small island, where lighthouse-keeper Conor (voice of Brendan Gleeson) and his wife Bronagh (voice of Lisa Hannigan) are expecting their second child, but as they put four-year-old Ben to bed, it is clear that something is not right. Jump ahead six years, and is clear that Ben (voice of David Rawle) resents his sister Saoirse, who has not yet learned to talk. A scare at Saoirse's birthday party has Conor send the children to live in Dublin with their grandmother, an action that both reveals a greater destiny for Saoirse and means she may need more help than Ben and their dog Cu can give to fulfill it.

Saoirse, it turns out, is a selkie, one of the many sorts of faeries to be found in Celtic myth (though human on land, they become seals when they enter the water with their special coats). Director Tomm More and screenwriter William Collins embrace their homeland's rich mythology, and not just by building the story around it. Ben lives and clings to the stories his mother told, making him a refreshing outlier in a genre where the hero must often start out as cynical and then embrace his heritage. It lets the filmmakers introduce new elements casually, without having to go through the effort of convincing Ben and the audience anew each time, and also means that when Ben is stymied by the things that would present challenges to a ten-year-old boy, it does not seem like small potatoes compared to witches and monsters.

Because Ben and Saoirse are kids, the mythic things they encounter are often reflections of other things that can seem bigger than life, and Moore generally strikes the right balance in making these parallels clear to the kids in the audience without making it too simplistic to the adults sitting next to them. It's hard to miss how both the kids' grandmother and owl-witch Macha (voice of Fionnula Flanagan) are acting out of a misplaced desire to protect their loved ones, but it off that comes the opportunity to see the story's villains in a more sympathetic light than might be typical, which is nice. The second choice that Brendan Gleeson provides - that of a mourning giant who became a nearby island - makes complete sense in retrospect, even if one doesn't catch it at the time. It raises the intriguing question of whether the face on that Island is literal or a product of the kids' imaginations, too.

That ability to be non-literal comes easier with the two-dimensional animation that Moore favors. Song of the Sea is not as aggressively flat and perspective-defying as his previous film The Secret of Kells was, but it's still eye-catching not just for being hand-drawn in a digital age, but for its wonderful use of simple shapes to make expressive characters and busy scenes, along with coloring that goes from bright and vibrant to spooky without disorienting the audience (he has a lot of fun with Halloween without making a Halloween movie). There's delightful attention to detail in things like Ben's hand-drawn map or little bits of character design without the screen ever becoming too crowded.

Consider, for instance, how Ben's orange shirt resolves into a life-jacket when that becomes important but not necessarily before, or how much the addition of a beard to Conor's round face ages and imparts sadness to the character after he loses Bronagh. There's some very nice voice work in the movie - Brendan Gleeson, in particular, should do it more often - but it's the mostly silent characters that really impress. Saoirse is not just spectacularly expressive, but she's a six-year-old girl with a personality before and after she becomes a chosen-one plot device, and Cu is a big, loyal, lovable mess of a dog despite being drawn from a few simple curves.

It's a great little movie, and one party of its greatness that it manages to have a strong Irish identity despite having producers from at least five different countries. So many of the animated/family films from the bigger houses will try to create a generic world, but this one has a place and point of view without ever being unwelcoming to any who might see it. With any luck, it will live on as a favorite even after the other nominees fade into the background.

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originally posted: 03/03/15 14:10:02
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 AFI Fest For more in the 2014 AFI Fest series, click here.

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  DVD: 17-Mar-2015


  DVD: 17-Mar-2015

Directed by
  Tomm Moore

Written by
  Will Collins

  Brendan Gleeson
  Fionnula Flanagan
  Pat Shortt
  David Rawle
  Jon Kenny
  Lisa Hannigan

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