With “Song of the Sea,” Irish animator Tomm Moore cements his place as a protector of not only Celtic culture, but classic toon forms as well. In a worthy follow-up to “The Secret of Kells” (a surprise nominee for the 2010 animated feature Oscar), Moore applies his dazzling hand-drawn style to another tale inspired by Irish legend, only this time, he spins the magic-infused yarn against a present-day backdrop while digging farther back into pre-Pictish rock drawings for visual references. Indie distrib GKids came aboard early, backing this Cartoon Saloon production, a limited-release treasure whose long-term library value similarly hinges on high-profile awards attention.
Whereas American toons tend to be driven predominantly by plot and character, Moore’s work delivers on various other levels, asking formula-fed animation auds to open their minds to a more poetic experience. That said, the pic’s emotional core isn’t so different from that of a studio-made heart-tugger like “Brave.” Here, the story is centered on a lost mother figure — a half-human, half-seal creature known as a “Selkie” — who disappears into the waves one night, leaving her husband and two children with many unanswered questions.
Considering the circuitous path big brother Ben (David Rawle) and his silent little sister, Saoirse, take in trying to unravel the family mystery, Moore and screenwriting collaborator Will Collins seem to be rejecting the simplified Joseph Campbell template upon which so many Western toons are modeled. The idea isn’t to shoehorn local legend into a comfortable Disney formula, but rather, to find the appropriate animated style through which to communicate his culturally specific narrative traditions. The digressions make the experience unique, while cute if somewhat simplistic-looking characters — including a massive sheepdog named Cu (Gaelic for “dog”) — ensure easy identification for young auds.
“Song of the Sea” is differentiated not only by its rich visual design — grayer and more subdued than “The Secret of Kells,” yet still a marvel to behold — but also by its ethereal musical dimension, another collaboration between composer Bruno Coulais and Irish folk band Kila. Their songs and score feature seldom-heard instruments, Gaellic lyrics and verse inspired by no less an Irish figure than William Butler Yeats (specifically “The Stolen Child,” in which fairies try to lure a child into the waters). One clue to the importance of music here is the fact that although Saoirse doesn’t speak, by playing her shell flute, this curious child participates in an older, proto-linguistic tradition. (The inconsistent sound mix heard at the Toronto premiere — flat in some scenes, lush in others — could use further tuning before release.)
Visually speaking, the superflat human characters recall the “cartoony” style of Genndy Tartakovsky (“The Powerpuff Girls,” “Samurai Jack”) and other popular American animated series (including “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” and “Flapjack”). But these google-eyed, bobble-headed figures carry on their adventures amid lavish hand-painted environments, distinguished by their watercolor textures and lines of varied colors and widths (as opposed to the uniform ligne claire style so common in comics and cartoons), all part of artistic director Adrien Merigeau’s beautifully executed take on Moore’s vision.
All these multimedia elements contribute to a uniquely immersive experience, suggesting the way a beetle might explore an elaborate tapestry at thread level, passing through segments of different colors along its winding journey. The kids’ epic quest leads them through realms populated by fairies, ancient sea gods and the owl witch Macha (Fionnula Flanagan). She’s an intimidating character, but not a clearcut villain per se, motivated as she is by an overzealous desire to eliminate suffering. Nearly all the adult voices (including a soft-spoken Brendan Gleeson) do double duty as both real and mythical characters — a nice touch in a tale designed to suggest that we’re slowly losing our ability to recognize the magic that surrounds us at all times. The pic’s poignant idea of a happy ending is one most would consider tragic, but then that’s just one more way Moore makes this song his own.