By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 14, 2015)
Given that we’re all descended from tetrapods (sorry, creationists) it’s not surprising that a number of cultures have developed myths featuring sea creatures who transmogrify into humans (and vice-versa). In Irish folklore, it’s the “selkie”. Writer-director Tomm Moore has followed up his lovely 2009 animated fantasy The Secret of Kells (see below) with Song of the Sea, a tale steeped in selkie mythology. A 2014 Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature, it’s currently in belated (and somewhat spotty) release around the U.S.
Moore’s film centers on a melancholic lighthouse keeper named Conor (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), who is raising young son Ben (David Rawle) and daughter Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) on his own, following the tragic loss of his wife, who died in childbirth. Sullen Ben, several years older than his 6 year-old sister, is experiencing growing pains, exacerbated by the fact that he misses his mother terribly. He pines for the mesmerizing tales about magical creatures that mother would tell him at bedtime. He has difficulty relating to his somewhat odd little sister, who is a mute.
After Saoirse is nearly swept away after inexplicably deciding to wander into the nearby surf in the middle of the night, Conor decides the children would be better off staying with their grandmother (Fiona Flanagan) in the big city. The kids aren’t so crazy about this plan; after a few mentally stultifying days with grandma they make a run for it. However, before they can wend their way back home, they are waylaid by a band of characters that seem to have popped right out of one of those fairy tales that Conor’s mother used to regale him with.
I can say no more without risking spoilers, except that if you have a chance to catch this beautiful gem on a theater screen, don’t pass it by. Even though this is only his second outing, Moore has fashioned an entertainment that feels like an instant classic; a work imbued with a timeless quality and assured visual aesthetic that I would put on a par with the best of Studio Ghibli. There is discernible warmth in Moore’s skilled use of traditional hand-drawn animation; a genuine sense of heart and soul sorely lacking from the computer-generated “product” that gluts our multiplexes these days.
If Song of the Sea hasn’t opened in your neck of the woods, don’t despair. I have several other recommendations, should your heart be set on a St. Patrick’s Day film fest. In alphabetical order, here are 4 more tales of Celtic magic and myth from the Emerald Isle:
Darby O’Gill and the Little People –Albert Sharpe gives a delightful performance as lead character Darby O’Gill in this 1959 fantasy from director Robert Stevenson. Darby is a crusty yet benign b.s. artist who finds himself embroiled in the kind of tale no one would believe if he told them it were true-matching wits with the King of the Leprechauns (Jimmy O’Dea), who has offered to play matchmaker between Darby’s daughter (Janet Munro) and a strapping pre-James Bond Sean Connery. The special effects hold up surprisingly well, considering limitations of the time. The scenes between Sharpe and O’Dea are especially amusing (“Careful what you say…I speak Gaelic too!”). Stevenson would later direct another “little people” movie, The Gnome-Mobile, in 1967.
Into the West– A gem from one of the more under-appreciated “all-purpose” directors working today, Mike Newell (Dance With a Stranger, Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin). At first glance, it falls into the “magical family film” category, but it carries a subtly dark undercurrent with it throughout, which keeps it interesting for the adults in the room. Lovely performances, a magic horse, and one purty pair o’humans (Ellen Barkin and Gabriel Byrne, real-life spouses at that time).
The Secret of Kells– A unique animated fantasy based on traditional Irish folk tales surrounding the origins of an illuminated manuscript from the 9th Century called The Book of Kells (an actual historical artifact, kept on permanent display at Dublin’s Trinity College). There are Tolkienesque touches (a diminutive hero, forest elves, marauding invaders), but this “quest” tale has a refreshing twist…the goal is not power or an attempt to take down a villain, but rather the preservation of knowledge and illumination. For the amazingly vivid look of their film, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, through some kind of “secret” alchemy of their own, seem to have taken some of those marvelous medieval era woodcuts and paintings you see in museums and art books and brought them to life.
The Secret of Roan Inish– John Sayles delivers an engaging live action fairy tale, which, like the aforementioned Song of the Sea, draws its inspiration from venerable Irish legends about the selkies. Wistful, haunting and beautifully shot by the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who captures the misty desolation of County Donegal’s rugged coastline in a way that recalls Michael Powell’s similarly effective utilization of Scotland’s Shetland Islands for his 1937 classic, The Edge of the World. The seals should have been nominated for a special Oscar for Best Performance by a Sea Mammal!