Review — Song of the Sea

01/29/2015

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There’s a tendency in modern animation to sneak in various subliminal elements “for the parents.” Maybe it’s implied scatological humor or maybe the motivations of the bad guy are buried in innuendo. The parents, this logic assumes, need something to keep them entertained beyond the garbage the kids are emotionally ready for. I’ve always found this to be a flawed strategy. The best children’s films (recently Frozen, The Lego Movie, and Boxtrolls) understand that kids are actually much smarter than we give them credit for, while adults need more of the familiar kind of emotional reassurance than they’d like to admit. Somewhere inside all of us is the child we once were; a far more vulnerable creature still afraid of losing the stability of parental love, who is sympathetic to everyone, susceptible to every jealous feeling, and always searching for home.

What I love about Song of the Sea is the way it demands more from both its key demographics. It’s scarier than the average Disney film and a bit more complex. Parents looking to shield their kids from nightmares and uncomfortable subtext will cringe at least a few times during its runtime. Meanwhile those same parents are being asked to let go of that desire for control and remember what it’s like to be young and to not understand why the world must block out so much feeling to go on running. The film’s pleasures, and they are many, rest in an appreciation of the unique beauty of the hand-drawn animation, recognition of behaviors every adult knows well and every child quietly observes much to their parents’ chagrin. It’s all so very sweet and all so very innocent, but not in the interest protecting its younger audience. It suggests that maybe we could all use a little more sweetness and innocence in the way we address a world that’s sometimes very unjust and cruel.

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That cruelty becomes apparent almost immediately. Parents in children’s films are like teenagers in horror. I’ve often wondered if animators have secret insider awards for things like “Best Implied Destruction of Mother.” After a few cryptic passages, rendered in stunning dreamlike montage, we pick up with preteen Ben (David Rawle), his mute younger sister Saoirse, and their sulking widower father Conor (Brendan Gleeson). It’s Saoirse’s birthday, which happens to coincide with the precise day of the tragedy that still clearly weighs on Conor and Ben’s hearts. Ben cannot help acting out against his sister, while Conor deals with his loss by sneaking out to the local pub after everyone has gone to sleep. Saoirse meanwhile obsesses over the seashell their mother left Ben the night she disappeared and a gleaming white coat their father has locked in the attic. Sure enough these wind up being magic, jumpstarting an adventure that doesn’t sound so much like a somber Noah Baumbach film.

The film’s biggest problem is its story. On the one hand you have a very specific Celtic myth, populated with names like Selkie, Derry, Mac Lir, Macha, and dozens of others. I eventually gave up on keeping them all straight. These specifics don’t’ really matter though, because the basics will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Disney film. There is a sensitive child in a stable home. They lose something (almost always a parent or two). They discover they are the “chosen one” in some mysterious world that has existed just under their nose. This mythology requires them to go on an adventure into the unknown, where they will encounter many unique magical spirits that are thinly veiled stand-ins for the people in their real life (the ones in Song of the Sea make the parallels in The Wizard of Oz seem downright subtle).

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But who said that great stories required clever plotting? What the film lacks in originality, it makes up for with its commitment to craft. These are some of the most stunning, evocative images in any movie in years. Small houses like Cartoon Saloon (which produced Sea and The Secret of Kells) don’t have the unlimited budgets enjoyed by Disney, Sony, or Dreamworks, so each image is a masterclass in the subtleties of color, shape, and texture used to imply larger, more magnificent worlds. Whether it’s the expressiveness in the characters’ faces or the boundless creativity in the design of the mythical creatures and worlds, distinct moments and images have remained with me long after their names and specific story functions began to fade.

The art of pure animation has inevitably faded in the world of computers. That sounds a bit crotchety, but I think in a practical sense it’s true. How many people returned home from How to Train Your Dragon 2 and talked about how beautiful or effective the images were? These are things audiences have learned to take for granted. Human characters and their surroundings in these films are almost all just a slightly skewed reflection of reality, while the boundless possibilities presented by computer animation mean we don’t see an animator’s job as much different from someone with a camera—if it overwhelms the narrative, we think, it’s probably off-putting. But Song of the Sea’s expressionistic dream imagery does a better service to its mythology. These images are brimming with emotion and meaning that unite the young and old in the audience more than a straightforward story could. After all, the one place where every adult must return to childhood is in the world of their dreams.

8/10

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