Selkies are the merpeople of Irish folklore, shape-shifters who live among us in human form but who ultimately long for the ocean, the watery hearth where they're able to roam free in their original form … as seals. Considering the storytelling possibilities in all these tales handed down from one generation to the next, it's surprising so few of them have been turned into films that have reached these shores.
Leave it to hand-drawn animator Tomm Moore to carry on this noble tradition. The Irishman's latest feature, Song of the Sea, continues the exploration of his home country's mythology the filmmaker started with his debut feature, the ravishing medieval yarn The Secret of Kells.
This time he leaves the confines of an 8th-Century monastery for a present-day lighthouse in a tiny, windswept island just off the Irish coast. At its heart is the fractured relationship between Ben (the voice of David Rawle) and baby sis Saoirse (Lucy O'Connell). He still harbors resentment he and his dad Conor (Brendan Gleeson) lost his mother Bronagh (Lisa Hannigan) on the night she gave birth to his younger sibling under mysterious circumstances that Moore alludes to in the prologue that opens the film. Six years later, Saoirse has not uttered one word, which could stem from feeling neglected by the people for whom she cares the most. Something keeps drawing her toward the water, though, and maybe it has something to do with those seals popping their heads to look at her, curious about this withdrawn girl with the saucer eyes and the brooding personality.
Actually, many of Moore's niftiest characters have those large, expressive orbs. In fact, the circle in all its forms and representations stands out as a motif throughout his work. His brand of animation is meticulous yet sprightly, detailed yet also broadly cartoonish, with a rich palette that bursts off the screen. The plot this time around kicks into gear when Saoirse finds her mother's shell flute and a gleaming hooded coat, which enable her to brave the tide and assume her animal form, if only for a few fleeting moments. The children's odious grandmother (The Others' Fionnula Flanagan) deems living in the lighthouse, largely ignored by a father (Brendan Gleeson) who's been cold and distant since his daughter was born, to be an unsafe environment for the tykes, so off they go to an unspecified city, a move that happens to take place on Halloween.
What follows is a fairly straightforward quest to come back home, which gives Moore an opportunity to bask in some beautifully rendered landscapes. Moore loves placing those huge eyes up close for the viewer to take in, but he's equally fond of extreme long shots in which the characters are reduced to dots in expansive vistas. He's also unafraid of tackling sensitive subject matter head on, such as Conor's depression, which often leads to him going to the mainland to nurse a pint at a local pub. What gets lost in the shuffle in Song of the Sea is the narrative, which considering the simplicity of the tale it's telling, is disappointingly poky and episodic. He doesn't quite strike a balance between lingering on his splendid visuals and maintaining a tight rein on the story, something he achieved in Kells.
The film's haphazard pacing deprives it of much-needed urgency and dilutes our emotional investment in the characters, which is unfortunate, since Moore wears his heart on his sleeve here more than in his previous effort. John Sayles navigated these mythical waters with more aplomb two decades ago in The Secret of Roan Inish, and Neil Jordan's (unseen by me) 2009 drama Ondine also has its admirers.
If the subject matter feels faintly familiar, you might be thinking of Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo, which depicts the fierce bond that develops between a boy and a goldfish that takes the form of a young girl. Actually, Miyazaki's influence is everywhere you look in Song of the Sea, particularly in the character with the most squandered potential: the owl witch Macha (Flanagan again), a soul sister to Spirited Away's twin witches Yubaba and Zeniba. Appearing way too late in the game, the character's backstory is worthy of its own movie, but Moore treats her as a bit player with a small but pivotal role in Ben and Saoirse's journey. (Try to imagine the Wicked Witch of the West not appearing on screen in The Wizard of Oz until the very last 15 minutes and you get the idea of the missed opportunity here.)
Despite my misgivings, though, Song of the Sea merits to be seen on the big screen. Granted, the feature, which, like Kells, surprised Oscar prognosticators by scoring an Animated Feature nod, is, in my humble opinion, the weakest contender is a fairly solid roster. But even when he still needs to continue honing his storytelling chops, Moore has made a fully felt valentine to his Celtic roots. Call it an exquisite sophomore slump.
Song of the Sea starts Feb. 20 at O Cinema Wynwood.