Song of the Sea

TITLE Song of the Sea
DIRECTOR  Tomm Moore
COMPANY  Cartoon Saloon, Digital Graphics, Magellan Films, Melusine Productions, Noerlum Studios
YEAR 2014
COUNTRY Ireland, France, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg

REVIEW by Natalie Belton
RATING ★★★★★ 

Cartoon Saloon is quickly establishing itself as a new animation powerhouse. The studio was founded in 1999, but did not really come into its own until the late 2000s following the release of several short films and its first feature, The Secret of Kells (2009). With the release of their newest movie, two TV series and upcoming feature in the works, Cartoon Saloon is setting an example for other small studios. Ethnically inspired, homegrown cartoons can find audiences, as they offer something different than typical Hollywood fare.

As for Song of the Sea itself, it is a bit of a departure from Cartoon Saloon's previous film. While also heavily inspired by Irish mythology and traditions, it is set in modern times, specifically 1987. (The Secret of Kells is set around 800 AD.) Both of the film's art styles are also somewhat different as well. The Secret of Kells is dominated by interlacing spirals, geometric patterns, and thick outlines. On the other hand, Song of the Sea veers more towards a rounded look, with smooth edges and sepia colors. However, the two movies share a similar theme: They stress the importance of family, and maintaining a sense of hope during difficult times. 

Tension bubbles just under the surface within the family.

Song of the Sea focuses on ten year old Ben, his six year old sister, Saoirse, and his father, Conor. Conor is left heartbroken by the departure of his wife, Bronagh, who disappeared into the sea after giving birth to Saoirse several years before. Ben has grown to resent his younger sibling, due to all of the attention she receives from Conor, and to the fact that he associates her with his mother's disappearance. Saoirse is a very bright and curious child, but is also mute. Saoirse is the spitting image of Bronagh. In fact, she is later revealed to be a silkie (a person who can transform into a seal) like her mother. 

After Saoirse is found washed up on the shore on her birthday night, Grannie decides that Saoirse and Ben would be better off living with her than their alcoholic father. She takes the two siblings to live with her in Dublin. However, Ben plans to run back home on Halloween night. At the same time, Ben  discovers that the fairytale stories he was told by his mother appear to be real, when he and his sister encounter several figures form Irish mythology on their journey back home.

Boredom was also a good motivator to leave Grannie.

The characters in Song of the Sea are complex and all grow through the trials they experience in their lives. At the start of the film, Ben is far more comfortable retreating into the world of comic books and reading his mom's stories than living in the present. He lavishes attention on his sheepdog, Cu, but rarely shows much affection towards Saoirse. It is not until Saorise falls ill that Ben realizes how much he has neglected her, and he decides to take matters into his own hands. 

Ben encounters many fairytale creatures on his quest to cure his ill sister (and, ultimately, save the rest of her kind). Some of them offer Ben advice, such as the forgetful but knowledgeable Great Seanchai, while others, such as the witch Macha, end up needing Ben's help instead. Macha is a particularly interesting character. Initially, she is introduced as the film's antagonist. She steals people's feelings and turns them to stone. However, we later learn that Macha does so in an attempt to rid others of bad feelings, she has even turned herself partly to stone in the process. Macha's first victim, in fact, was her son the giant Mac Lir, who was morning over the loss of his lover.

Locking up your emotions can actually do more harm than good in the long run. 

These mythological figures mirror people in Ben's own life. (And are in fact, portrayed by the same voice actors.) Macha represents Grannie, who attempts to help her family, but ends up accidentally causing tension by moving her grandkids in with her. Mac Lir represents Conner who is paralyzed by the loss of his wife. Finally, the Great Seanchai represents Dan the Ferryman, who acts as Ben's link to the outside world and offers him advice. 

At first glance, the animation used in Song of the Sea seems rather simple looking. However, this works to the movie's benefit rather than hindering it. The stylized characters fit the mood of the film. They contrast with film's extremely detailed backgrounds, helping establish a relatable, but slightly otherworldly look. Since Ben's quest takes him between both the human and faerie worlds it works rather well. 

Both the final animation and concept art are beautiful.

Song of the Sea is clearly a labor of love, having spent over five years in production. It tackles subjects not normally touched upon in mainstream family films, but does so in a way that is perfectly acceptable for children and that is easy to understand. The Secret of Kells already proved that Tomm Moore is a talented director, and this film further proves it. It is easily one of the best animated films to recently come out, and it was wrongfully robbed of its Oscar. Hopefully,  Song of the Sea will eventually get the attention it deserves.

Learning to accept life's troubles and moving on is the key to happiness.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR   Natalie Belton is currently a college student majoring in Anthropology and Geography with a passionate interest in culture, film, and art. Outside of writing for CDR, she also maintain her own animation and movie blog, The Animatorium.  For any questions, Natalie may be reached at