Thursday, March 19, 2015
Review: 'Song of the Sea' is Atmospheric, Heartfelt, and Visually Stunning
Yesterday, I blind bought Tom Moore's Song of the Sea on Blu-ray. A traditionally animated film (!), and one that made quite a splash in the critics and animators' circles. For a good reason too, believe what you've heard, it's wonderful!
I must confess that I have not seen Moore's previous film, his first, The Secret of Kells. Produced by the same house, Cartoon Saloon, it had quite a cool art style. It was certainly the unique one in the 2009 nominees bunch, because the other traditionally animated film in the running happened to come from Disney Animation and had that familiar-but-amazing Disney look we all know and love.
Song of the Sea has a very similar art style to its predecessor, but it's very different in ways so it doesn't look like it could be Kells' twin sister, but rather its cousin. I could go on about the art direction in this film, it's a very lovely combination of Celtic folk art and a very quaint storybook-like look. Flat as the style may look, it's very atmospheric... Very, very atmospheric. Each setting is brought to life wonderfully, whether it's the autumnal Irish countryside or the salty seaside or the underwater world. The look of this film proves - like any good, great-looking 2D animated film - that any kind of 2D animation can be as immersive as the visuals in a big CG film, and can certainly feel as real. Adding to this is a very good score by Bruno Coulais & Kila.
The story itself is very sweet, simple, and heartfelt, but it has a surprising amount of depth. What really worked about the film itself was how quiet it was. Song of the Sea certainly has a plot, but it doesn't really kick in until its second half. It really takes its time, but it never really drags or meanders. The quietness of it all allows you to breathe in all the visuals and the atmosphere. Song of the Sea isn't plot-heavy nor is it content with burning the oil, it just tells its story in its own unique way. Song of the Sea is around the same length as most animated films made stateside, but yet it never seems too long nor does it feel too short. The pacing is just right, giving this 94-minute film a suitably epic feel. With no big money and merchandising deals hanging on its back, it gets to do what it wants. Now to have more of those kind of animated features here in the states would be nice, because there's no need to rush or to be plot-heavy. (I'm not accusing all recent American animated films of this.)
What else works? One thing I particularly liked was how they handled the relationship between Ben and Saoirse. Ben is a very realistic older brother who is roughly 8-10, and he can be impatient and outright rude in many moments, but he ultimately realizes these things later on. Having Saoirse not speak for a majority of the film also helps give the film its calm atmosphere. Sometimes having the main character mostly communicate through body language (Dumbo and WALL-E immediately come to mind) speaks volumes. The story carefully mixes lighthearted moments, dark sequences, and sequences that are sure to pull the heartstrings. It even succeeds at getting some funny business into the mix as well, but the humor is never loud or in your face. The characters are all very likable, and I particularly loved how they handled Macha, who seems like an antagonist at first. The voice cast, consisting of mostly Irish talents, really gives it their all.
Its fantastical elements are marvelous, too. Since the story is very rooted in Irish folklore, we get to see a lot of different creatures and enchanted locations. All of this is emphasized by the film's color work, which really stands out. A sequence set in the bottom of a well Ben goes into is a particularly amazing moment. If the art style alone wasn't eye-popping enough, it's the color work. A busy city, the autumnal countryside, the salty seaside, the cool underwater world... The character design work is also very appealing, from the humans to the animals. More off-the-wall designs are used for the selkies in their human forms, along with Macha, whose face is the perfect combination of an owl and a human being. The movements themselves are very subtle and well-timed, too.
Moore has spoken about Richard Williams and how his works (i.e. The Thief and the Cobbler) influenced him, and you can definitely see that on display in many sequences. One scene set inside Ben and Saorise's grandmother's house certainly recalled the intricately designed palace in The Thief. It's good to see that Williams' style is influencing people within the industry today, as his unreleased Thief and the Cobbler is an animation magnum opus in terms of the actual animation and artwork.
Best of all, the storytelling is great. In addition to the overall atmospheric tone of the film, Song of the Sea doesn't try to be edgy nor does it pander to the younger set. It simply tells its story and speaks from its heart, that way it engages both kids and adults, making for an all-around excellent family film. It's very well-paced, and its mix of fantasy, drama, and even some humor is near-perfect, giving the film a real tonal consistency. Its more dramatic moments are subtle, with little scenes that hit you in the same way a very sad or dramatic sequence in another animated film does. The themes the film explores are also strong. Best of all, it feels very timeless.
Moore's film is a gem overall, and one that's rich in good storytelling and themes while also being a visual marvel. Song of the Sea comes highly, highly recommended!