AFI Fest 2014: ‘Song of the Sea’

I was born and raised on the West Coast, about 15-minutes by car from the shore although the surfing beaches were much farther. My mother and father’s parents were from an island nation. My earliest memory of my father was him scooping me out of the ocean’s waves when it tried to claim me as a child of five or so. Chilled to the bone, I was wrapped up in a towel to warm in the summer California sun. Yet I still love listening to the rhythm of the waves and the song of the sea calls to me, even during the winter when I’ll wrap myself up in a wool coat.

Now, after seeing “Song of the Sea,”  I can imagine wrapping myself up in a white Selkie coat and swimming with the seals.

I both fear and love the ocean and its waves. Both aspects of coastal life are captured in the new animated feature “Song of the Sea.” Tomm Moore (“The Secret of the Kells”) and his Cartoon Saloon wrap us up in his warmly nostalgic memories of Ireland in the 1980s while enchanting us with comforting Irish myths and legends. Moore’s original story, fashioned into a screenplay by Will Collins, takes us on a journey of forgiveness, understanding and love. The majority of this adventure takes place on one of my favorite nights, Halloween, but this isn’t focused on Halloween itself at all.

The story is told through the eyes of Ben (voiced by David Rawle). Ben’s father Conor (Brendan Gleeson) works and lives at the lighthouse situated on a small island with his pregnant wife, Bronach (Lisa Hannigan). It’s a blustery, isolated place, only linked to the Irish mainland by a small ferry. Conor and Bronach have a secret. She’s a Selkie and she’s been teaching Ben the songs of her people and give him a shell that’s been made into a musical instrument. Bronach dies giving birth to Ben’s sister, Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell), plunging both Ben and Conor into a world of grief. Conor rejects the Selkie world. Ben rejects Saoirse.

As Saoirse approaches her sixth birthday, she is silent, but she’s tempted by the sea and the seals. Selkies transform into seals when they wear their magical coats.  Saoirse finds her coat and frolics in the waves before transforming into a seal and zooming into the blue magical deep world of the sea, swimming beside a whale. When she returns to shore, her paternal grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) is horrified, mistakenly thinking that Saoirse is in danger of drowning. Ben already has a fear of the sea from a previous experience.

Granny insists that the children would be safer in the city, living with her. Yet the city is a small place and that means Ben must leave his beloved dog Cu behind.

Ben escapes at night to return home, but Saoirse follows him. Ben begrudgingly allows her to tag along. Their journey takes place on Halloween night and while other children are pretending to be supernatural beings, Ben and Saoirse are actually meeting beings from Irish legends. They work against Macha (Flanagan), the mother of Mac Lir (Gleeson), a great warrior who was so paralyzed by grief that he froze and became an island. They meet faeries who can play fine music but are fearful of turning to stone unless the last Selkie left in Ireland, Saoirse, wears her coat and sings her song.

This is a beautiful tale that incorporates the myths and legends of Ireland and bring them into contemporary times with heartwarming lessons about family, grief and the magic of love. With a title like “Song of the Sea” and Irish culture, of course, music is an important part of the movie. Bruno Coulais in collaboration with Kita composed and orchestrated original music that will lull you into this fanciful world of faeries and Selkies and a man with an endless beard. Hannigan and Nolwenn Leroy interpret the songs that are both haunting and sweet.

This is fine family entertainment that you can attend without fear of the endless bombardment of connected merchandise. Artists can enjoy the beauty of the lines and the depth of the color and sentiment.

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