Celtic selkie lore comes alive in dazzling ‘Song of the Sea’
Anyone who loves seals (and who doesn’t around here?) will be utterly charmed by the magical Irish animated feature Song of the Sea. Ditto anyone with a taste for ancient Celtic folklore, fairy tales and mythology. Directed by Tomm Moore, whose previous film was the lovely Secret of the Kells, inspired by the famed illuminated manuscript, this Oscar-nominated follow-up combines traditional tales of the selkies (seals who transform into humans on land) with a stunning visual palette.
Every hand-drawn frame of this movie is ravishing. You keep finding yourself reaching for the remote in the darkened theater, trying to pause the image so you can study every gorgeous detail.
Scripted by William Collins, Song of the Sea offers a fresh take on the old legends. It’s set in a recognizably modern world, but a world in which ancient gods and heroes, fair folk, witches, and magical beings are always nearby. In traditional tales, female selkies come on shore, take off their seal skins, and dance on the beach in human form. There’s usually a dazzled human fisherman who sees it all, hides the sealskin, and marries the selkie in her womanly form. But the selkie must always return to the sea eventually, or die.
In Moore’s film, Conor (voice of Brendan Gleeson) is a lighthouse keeper on a wild, rugged promontory jutting out of the sea off the Irish coast. He has a little boy named Ben, and a very pregnant wife, the beautiful, mysterious Bronagh (Lisa Hannigan), who sings ancient folk songs to Ben and teaches him to make music with a Nautilus shell. But on the morning Ben wakes up to discover he has a new baby sister, Saoirse, his beloved mum, has disappeared.
Growing up on their windswept island, Ben’s best friend is his floppy sheepdog, Cú. But kid sister Saoirse is kind of a pain; she doesn’t speak, and has an unsettling habit of wandering off to the water’s edge—where, in one of the movie’s happiest images, dozens of seal heads are always popping up out of the water to greet her. (Underwater, they sound more like whales, but they’re still so cool!) On Saoirse’s sixth birthday, their granny (Fionnula Flanagan), removes the kids to the mainland to lead a civilized life, but they run away, determined to find their way home. Their journey back to the sea is beautifully rendered. The landscapes have the softly-blended textures and rich, muted colors of pastel chalk drawings, and every rock formation, whether nestled in the underbrush or protruding up out of the sand in the beach scenes, bears the delicate tracery of ancient Runic designs. A marvelous interlude occurs at a Holy Well, a shrine in the countryside festooned with candles, painted icons, and rustic statues.
All of these details emphasize the nearness of the Otherworld, and as the siblings find their way home, they also take a larger journey through the heart of Celtic lore. Informing all is the legend of a giant so traumatized by the death of his wife that his mother, the Owl Witch, casts a spell and turns him into a rock so he won’t have to feel any more sorrow. She’s banished the emotions of all the other gods and heroes, as well, and as the children discover fairies, elves, and the Owl Witch herself alive in their world, they also encounter the remains of ancient heroes turned to stone, silent faces etched into granite like the famous chess pieces from the Isle of Lewis, awaiting the magic that will set them free.
Moore’s film is also an endearing tale of a young girl who discovers her own unique destiny. (And she doesn’t have to become that tired modern cliché, the “kick-ass heroine,” to do it.) Ben learns to love and respect his little sister for her special gifts, but it’s up to Saoirse to save the day and reverse the spell, releasing scores of Celtic heroes from their stony prisons in a gorgeous, eye-popping finale. And not even those whose feelings have been turned to stone could resist Moore’s gently moving conclusion. Humorous, heartfelt, and dazzling to look at, Song of the Sea has it all.
SONG OF THE SEA
**** (out of four)
Animated film by Tomm Moore. With the voices of Brendan Gleeson and Fionnula Flanagan. A GKIDS release. Rated PG. 93 minutes.