Song of the Sea review: A lot of pretty ghosts in the machine

Old-fashioned artistry sets Tomm Moore’s second feature apart from the digital mob

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Film Title: Song of the Sea

Director: Tomm Moore

Starring: David Rawle, Brendan Gleeson, Fionnula Flanagan, Lisa Hannigan, Lucy O'Connell, Jon Kenny, Pat Shortt, Colm O'Snodaigh

Genre: Animation

Running Time: 93 min

Fri, Jul 10, 2015, 08:59

   

Rather later than we might have liked, Tomm Moore’s Oscar-nominated second feature finally makes it into cinemas. Supersaturated in ancient myth, Song of the Sea marks an advance on Cartoon Saloon’s earlier The Secret of Kells. Superficial comparisons to the work of Studio Ghibli miss the point. Yes, the films focus on sadder childhoods swept up by eternal magic, but what the Kilkenny-based animation team have really taken from their Japanese mentors is a determination to work old-fashioned artistry into a medium increasingly dominated by the digital image. There are pretty ghosts in the machine.

The new picture begins with a prologue concerning Conor (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), a lighthouse keeper, who “loses” his wife as she gives birth to the mysterious Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell). Early on we learn that the girl, who refuses to speak, may be one of the seal-like quasi-humans known to the ancients as selkies. The uneasy idyll is broken when a severe Granny (the unmistakable Fionnula Flanagan) arrives and declares that the remote spot is no place for Saoirse and her brother Ben (David Rawle). Granny bundles the children into the car and transports them to a forbidding city that suddenly (and nostalgically) grounds the film in the 1980s.

It seems unlikely that a more beautiful film will be released this year. Moore and his team manage the tricky art of varying their techniques – swirling backgrounds frame broad lines reminiscent of Genndy Tartakovsky’s work – while maintaining a visual consistency. The film swells with beautifully realised characters, including an adorable sheepdog who, rather than giving into anthropomorphism, retains his dogginess throughout. Having actors voice both human and magical characters argues for a connection between the new and ancient worlds.

All that noted, it may seem churlish to note that, as was the case with The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea disappoints when it comes to the script. Indeed, the centre of the film is a cluttered mess of mythological allusions that fast loses any narrative thread. At times, as giants trade screen-time with witches, faeries and possessed owls, the picture takes on the quality of a three-disc concept album from the proggy 1970s. Which is not to say we are comparing Bruno Coulais and Kíla’s lovely music to that of Van Der Graaf Generator. I hope that’s clear.