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SONG OF THE SEA reminds us of the power of simplicity in storytelling and in animation. Hand-drawn and steeped in Irish folklore, it is a profoundly moving experience rife with charm, wisdom, and beauty. Told from a child’s perspective, the magical and the mundane coalesce in perfect harmony, revealing the one in the other in the same way that our hero, Ben (David Rawle), discovers the necessity of accepting grief along with joy, and the stunning way that good and evil are intertwined.
Ben lives with his father and sister, Saoirse, on the island lighthouse that his father tends. There he lives surrounded by the stories his mother told him of fairies and witches and other magical creatures, such as selkies, who are seals in the ocean, humans on land, and who sing a magical song. Ben clings to those stories as a way of keeping his mother close after she died giving birth to Saoirse. It’s a cloud that hangs over the family: his father (Brendan Gleeson) has never recovered, and Ben himself has never warmed to his sister the way he should have, and her strangeness, never talking, wandering into the sea, makes it even harder to be close to her.
On her sixth birthday, Saoirse takes the nautilus shell that was their mother’s last gift to Ben, dons a coat hidden away in the back of her father’s closet, and once again wanders out to sea, only this time something magical happens. Instead of drowning like a mortal child, Saoirse reveals her true identity as a selkie, transmutes into a seal, and joins the other pinnipeds on an undersea adventure. Her return, washed up on the shore, is the final straw for their grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan), who, unaware of the supernatural doings, and meaning well, packs the children up and moves them to her house in the city, leaving behind their despairing father, beloved sheepdog Cu, and the one thing that will keep Saoirse thriving.
Despondent, the children run away, braving the grimy menace of the city, where Ben discovers that the stories his mother told were true, including the ones about Macha, the Owl Witch who has designs on Saoirse for reasons that can best be described as complicated.
The use of light and darkness is sublime, with bubbles of light floating in a gauzy stream to guide Ben on his way, and shadows cast in his path that are even more frightening that what is casting them. The power of storytelling drives the film, with the animation getting out of its way. A few well-chosen strokes convey sorrow, surprise, wonder, and joy as Ben’s quest to retrieve his sister when she is stolen takes him to a holy well, underground labyrinths, petrified fairies, and an ocean quest that is the definition of suspense and courage. For all the superb animation, though, the touching relationship between brother and sister is what captures the heart, and keeps the stakes high throughout as Saoirse’s time grows short, and Ben’s panic is mixed with the discovery of just how much she means to him.
SONG OF THE SEA ends with a conclusion that renders the traditional happy ending trite by comparison. This is an ending that is nothing short of rapturous even as it evokes the almost mystical connection between love and sorrow by situating that connection both in the family unit and in the heavens themselves. And all without a trace of CGI.