J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Song of the Sea: A Selkie Story

W.B. Yeats is not often quoted in animated features, but his poem “The Stolen Child” is very definitely a source of inspiration for Tomm Moore’s latest film. If that sounds too serious for your viewing pleasure, take comfort from the presence of a big lovable fur ball of a dog named Cú—that being the Gaelic word for dog. There will also be selkies and assorted faery folk. Yes indeed, you can expect a generous helping of Celtic lore in Moore’s truly lovely Song of the Sea (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Presumably, Ben’s mother Bronagh died in child birth with his little sister Saoirse, but there is more to the story than he realizes. The truth is Bronagh was a selkie, a mythical shape-shifting seal woman, who can live on dry land for years, must eventually return to the sea. Saoirse is her mother’s daughter, who was born with a selkie coat to wear as she transforms, but her lighthouse keeper father keeps it hidden under lock-and-key for fear of losing her too.

Ben is supposed to look after his sister, but he often loses patience with the young girl. She has yet to speak a word, but she can make music worthy of Steve Turre with the shell Ben keeps as a remembrance of their mother. For the most part, the outdoorsy island life suits both children, but their bossy grandmother insists on relocating them to Dublin. Unfortunately, taking Saoirse that far from the water is not a good idea, but the faithful Cú will help guide them home. Along the way, they will meet several Fae beings who have a personal stake in restoring the young selkie’s powers.

Song of the Sea pretty much has it all when it comes to animated movies. Moore taps into some deep Celtic legend to tell a mature, psychologically complex coming-of-age story. Plus, Cú is just huggably adorable. The hand drawn animation is also a thing of beauty. While Moore’s figures are deliberately simple and anime-esque (in a big-eyed kind of way), his landscapes and fantasyscapes are breathtakingly lush. He also integrates music into the film in a culturally organic manner that powerfully underscores the on-screen mood and sometimes helps drive the narrative.

Granted, Saoirse hardly makes a peep in Song, but her character development arc packs quite an emotional wallop. Viewers older than your correspondent (by decades) were fighting off the sniffles at the conclusion of the screening we attended. Even if you have a heart of stone, you will completely invest in her story, in spite of yourself. Older boys will also readily identify with Ben, who has navigated much of life’s confusions largely on his own. Together, they will negotiate several highly fantastical turn of events, but it is their sibling relationship that anchors the film.


This year, GKIDS has two legitimate Oscar contenders in Song and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, both of which conclusively demonstrate animation can be a legit form of art. Each is also rather tragic, but in a wholly satisfying sort of way. Yet, Song is still safely kid-friendly (thanks again to Cú). Frankly, they ought to be in contention for best picture overall, but GKIDS will probably have to settle for an animation nomination for one or the other. Highly recommended, Song of the Sea opens this Friday (12/19) in New York at the IFC Center.

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