The Other Side of Animation: Song of the Sea Review

When Disney and Dreamworks announced that 2D animation was a dead art, I was sad, since 2D animation has created some of the best imagery that we have ever seen on the big or small screen. Hearing that the art form that brought us Fantasia, Beauty and the Beast, The Prince of Egypt, Spirited Away, The Rescuers Down Under, and etc. was dead and not profitable, wasn’t really true. If we are being honest, this statement from the two big animation studios came out around the same time Dreamwork’s Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, and Disney’s Home on the Range came out, which was the 2003/2004 era. By the way, this was also the same time Disney released Brother Bear, which critically and financially flopped. So, in a cynical retort, they brought it upon themselves for making traditional animation not profitable. The problem wasn’t that the stories were told in traditional 2D animation, the problem was that the stories and characters weren’t good. It’s like any film, the movie didn’t fail to appeal to audiences because an actor didn’t have star power (though that can be an issue), it’s because the movie was terrible. I wrote this opening paragraph for today’s review about Tom Moore’s Song of the Sea because it shows how to do 2D animation right, and shows where Dreamworks and Disney were failing at that period of time. You can also toss this film onto the list of films that should have won best animated feature instead of the big Disney film of that year. Anyway, let’s dive into this Irish classic, and see why Song of the Sea is one of the best animated films of 2015.

The story revolves around a young boy named Ben, voiced by David Rawle, who lives with his father Conor, voiced by Brendan Gleeson, and younger sister named Saoirse, voiced by Lucy O’Connell on an island where they run a lighthouse. For many years, Ben has had a distinct dislike of his sister, Saoirse, due to her being born the same day his mother vanished. On Saoirse’s 6th birthday, Conor’s mother, voiced by Fionnula Flanagan, comes for a visit. After an incident later that night where Saoirse was found on the beach with a white coat on her, Conor decides to let the kids be taken back to the mainland with his mother. Once on the mainland, Ben finds out that there is more to his sister Saoirse than meets the eye.

Alright, what makes this movie worthy of an Oscar nomination and one of my favorite movies of the year? Well, how about we start off with how the movie’s set up? How about I answer that question with another question? What is one of the top 10 elements I look for in an animated film? I want the film to have its own identity. For example, I like it when a film like Spirited Away or Paprika does its own thing and not follow a fad or had a higher-up at the studio demand they make a movie that’s like another film that is coming out. For a while, it was studio mandate to make a film similar to another film that was coming out during that year. Song of the Sea succeeds since it follows its own rules in what will make a good movie. They have a setting that is unique, with a lot of lore and characters of the film based off of Irish folklore. It has a believable relationship between Ben and his sister. You would think it would be simple to make a relationship between a brother and sister easy since I bet many animators and people in this industry have kids and know how they act, but nope! This is easily one of the best examples of child actors pulling off excellent performances. I guess it also helps that the sister doesn’t speak until the very end, so, yeah.

The parallel comparisons between the human characters and the characters of lore are cleverly woven into the story.  The emotions from the actors feel genuine, and for an animated film where you can’t see the actors, that is so important. I know many people like to say that voice acting isn’t “real” acting, but you can’t stand/sit in a recording booth, say a few lines, and that’s it. You have to put in a good performance, you still have to emote. If you don’t, then you are going to get criticized for bad acting, just like if you were actually performing on camera. For example, when Conor is somber over the anniversary of his wife’s disappearance, and when he has to send the kids away, you really feel the heartbreak in his voice. A theme that is tackled in this movie that I like is how literally bottling your emotions away is not a good thing. In the film, the owl witch Macha takes the emotions away from everyone and puts them into jars. The result of this magic turns everyone into stone. I find this so interesting, since much of the time, you are told to keep your emotions at bay and not let them out as much. However, if you don’t, you figuratively and literally turn into a soulless emotionless rock of a human being. The Celtic music playing throughout the film is gorgeous to listen to. It’s composed by a band called Kila, which collaborated with a French composer named Bruno Coulais, who has worked on films like Microcosmos, Three Hearts, Coraline, and his most recent work, Diary of a Chambermaid. It fits all of the emotional notes that you see throughout Song of The Sea.

How can I talk about this film and not bring up its beautiful, lush, and colorful animation? It’s the reason why I opened up about how people think 2D animated films can’t be great or big money makers. It’s smooth, fluent, expressive, stylized, atmospheric, and downright beautiful to look at in motion. It reminds me of something from the team that made Samurai Jack, but on a bigger budget. A lot of this gorgeous animation can be given credit to the studio Cartoon Saloon, which also worked on The Secret of Kells, another Tom Moore film that I will cover in the future.

Song of the Sea is original, beautiful, and overall, a fantastic movie. I really can’t find something bad to say about the film. I could complain about the previews that you see on the disc since Universal Studios helped distribute it, so you had films of both equal and lesser caliber than Song of the Sea, like Monster High, but that is just nitpicky. If you for some reason have never seen this movie and have only heard of it, go out and buy the combo pack that comes with both a Blu-ray and DVD in one package. It’s one of the best animated films from Europe, and you must own it. Go support these under-advertised and amazing movies. Sadly, this being the internet, I should probably cover something terrible. How about a bad example of a third-party animated film that shows why you should only support companies like Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, and GKIDS? Well, there is no better example than The Nut Job. Thanks for reading, and see you next time!

Rating: Criterion/Essentials