“Song of the Sea” may suffer in storytelling, but it certainly prospers at crafting an emotional tale. While other Oscar-nominated animated features of 2014 delighted in superhero comedy (“Big Hero 6”) and dragon-hunting action (“How to Train Your Dragon 2”), and still others explored new ways of animating (“The Tale of Princess Kaguya”), “Song of the Sea” is a simple tale about loss and closure.
Song of the Sea
The Michigan Theater
Like director Tomm Moore’s first animated feature, the Oscar-nominated “The Secret of Kells,” “Song of the Sea” delves into Irish mythology. Newcomer Lucy O’Connell plays Saoirse, a six-year-old girl who has never spoken a word in her life. Saoirse’s older brother, Ben (David Rawle, “Moone Boy”) and her widowed father, Conor (Brendan Gleeson, “Edge of Tomorrow”) don’t realize that like her late mother, Saoirse is a selkie — a human who turns into a seal when it enters the water.
The film opens with an elegant first act portraying the profound effect the death of Bronagh (Lisa Hannigan, known for her career as a singer-songwriter) has had on her family. Conor spends nights depressed at the pub while Ben bullies Saoirse, clearly blaming her for Bronagh’s death. One night, Ben and Saoirse’s babysitter granny (Fionnula Flanagan, “Yes Man”) finds Saoirse asleep on the beach. Declaring their island home unsafe, Granny takes the children with her to her house on the mainland, leaving Conor to grieve alone with their sheepdog, Cú.
Despite the film’s emotional core, “Song of the Sea” struggles at crafting an original story. Behind the creative mythological touches, much of the film’s story relies on another MacGuffin: a “selkie coat” that Saoirse must find to save a race of fairies from an evil owl witch named Macha. The second act of the film includes some playful, amusing new characters, but it’s not as interesting as the genuine emotion of the beginning. Saoirse wants to go home to find the coat, and Ben just wants to see Cú, but neither of these motivations are strong enough to power the story. Ultimately, the plot just feels formulaic.
It doesn’t help that the animation is hardly spectacular in the middle section of the film. The opening and closing acts are full of rich hand-painted backgrounds, from the swirling blues of the sea to the muted grays and greens of the sky, but the second act puts an emphasis on the characters’ faces, which are flat and simplistic. This traditional style fits the film, but it doesn’t allow for additional excitement in the middle parts. The film also mostly stays away from humor, aside from some light touches, like Ben going to the pain of vaulting a fence when the gate is already unlocked.
Still, the film never reaches slog status, and it’s all worth it for what it builds to. Macha, also voiced by Flanagan, is a surprisingly tragic character, an antagonist who takes away all emotions in an effort to eliminate suffering from the world. Her wide owl eyes suggest painful scars from her past, and the film meditates on whether happy moments are worth it with all the sad moments that come with them.
The film finally comes together with a beautiful, awe-inspiring ending that makes excellent use of composer Bruno Coulais and Irish band Kíla’s passionate score. Ben is forced to confront his misplaced resentment for his sister, and Conor must move past his anguish to be the father Ben and Saoirse need. The film may be a bit of a slow burn when it comes to plot, but when the payoff is this affecting, something as trivial as plot is insignificant.