It's a wonderful thing getting beckoned into a fairy tale, especially when the storyteller understands how to lure you in with a sense of mystery. Modern children's films often don't understand or care about a complex opening salvo, opting instead for obvious tropes or ironic spins on "Once upon a time." Tomm Moore's gorgeous animated film Song of the Sea does just the opposite, starting off with the bedtime story that thrives on wonder and enchantment.
Young Ben (voiced by David Rawle) lies in his room adorned with fantastical tableaus from Irish folklore that are drawn on the wall like cave paintings. He listens carefully as his pregnant mother Bronach (Lisa Hannigan) tells of an ancient giant who was turned to stone so that he wouldn't have to feel pain any longer, and of the owl witch who cast the spell. The last images Ben sees are of this mother leaving the room, suddenly grabbing her belly and gasping in pain.
Flash forward six years and Ben has gained a mute little sister Saoirse (Lucy O'Connell) and lost a mother. Their father Conor (Brendan Gleeson) mans a lighthouse on a gangly island that ascends into the sky. Conor's grumpy old mother often visits with the intent of getting the family to move back to the city. While sitting on the beach with his big sheepdog Cu, Ben sketches pictures of the ancient stories his mother has passed on, seemingly at peace with whatever trauma happened. Saoirse, on the other hand, looks haunted, often gazing out into the ocean and communicating non-verbally with the seals, as if she herself was being beckoned to another realm.
Song of the Sea follows a fairly linear narrative in which the siblings learn to trust each other when the fairy tales they've been told as children end up coming true. Surrounded by magic fairies, preying owls and circular patterns of mystical particles born from the deep sea, Ben and Saoirse discover that their family holds a secret connection with the Selkie, a half-human, half-seal creature of Irish lore previously seen in John Sayles' underrated gem, The Secret of Roan Inish.
Moore's love for nature remains consistently evident in the gorgeously layered images, many harboring a visual complexity and density on par with anything in the Pixar universe. The underwater sequences are especially luminous, like one wide shot of seals swimming underneath the belly of a massive sperm whale. Primary colors are magnified through the heightened purview of children being awakened to tradition and folklore.
Thematically, Song of the Sea couldn't be more relevant for young siblings threatened by each other's unique traits. Ben is quite nasty to Saoirse, in large part because he doesn't understand how they could be from the same family tree. Moore appreciates the uniqueness of different kinds of perspectives and makes this relatable for curious children. Instead of punishing bad behavior, the film provides Ben with learning experiences that are deeply rooted in his own crisis of self.
Song of the Sea, which opens Friday, Jan. 30, at Reading Gaslamp Cinemas, will be competing for Best Animated Film at the Academy Awards on Feb. 22. It's a curious (and altogether welcome) choice to be recognized, most notably because it stubbornly insists that memories can be just as magical as fairy tales. Ben and Saoirse's experiences find reference points in the paintings on their walls and in the deep blue sea.
"Remember me in your stories and songs," their mother whispers late in the film, from beyond the grave. By the end, there's no doubt these two children will be spinning tales well into their old age, beckoning future generations with the best of them.