Song of the Sea is a beautiful film. Its vivid art style easily separates it from the prosaic sameness that currently grips much of mainstream animation. That’s the big advantage that animated films made by smaller outfits, such as Cartoon Saloon, have over the Disneys and Dreamworks of the world. But there’s a weakness to them as well, one that Song of the Sea stumbles on: a frustratingly muddled story approach.
One thing that major studios have going for them is that their executive-scrutinized teams of artists will usually ensure that their movies contain a narrative propulsion. Independents favor a slower approach, because, let’s face it, most of them are trying to be Studio Ghibli. And this is an admirable aim, to be sure. But the Ghibli writers and animators know how to properly balance slowness and action, and how to make sure that the moments their films take to breathe don’t end up turning into yawns. In animation circles, there’s a certain fetishism for beautiful moments, and creators seem to be actively seeking to create them. But you can’t reverse-engineer beauty this way.
Song of the Sea has one scene after another that’s trying to make the viewer go “wow.” And it is always wonderful to look at, to be sure. Like Cartoon Saloon and director Tomm Moore’s previous feature effort, The Secret of Kells, the movie has a sumptuous design. While Kells mixed medieval illuminated manuscript art with The Thief and the Cobbler, Song takes its aesthetic more from illustrated storybooks of classic tales, the sort your mom or dad would find for you at your local library. Scene after scene aims to wow the audience, to pull an “ooh” out of them. A selkie swims with sea lions in a bay. A swarm of fairy lights form a trail for a little girl to follow. A parade of mythical creatures awaken all across the land and march to the sea.
But it’s all dragging a nonstarter story. A boy and his sister pinball from one situation to another. They start out living at a lighthouse with their father (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), but are then sent to live with their grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan). But then they’re recruited by some fairies to help free them from the curse of an old witch (also Flanagan), so they embark on a long trip back to the lighthouse, and then some other things happen. It’s a “things happening” plot: that’s the problem with structuring a movie around set-pieces calculated for “wow” and little else. There’s a skeleton of an emotional arc within, focusing on the bond between the siblings and the loss they feel for their departed mother, but that’s not really explored so much as it is namechecked whenever the film wants to use it to pull more feeling from the viewer.
It’s frustrating, because some of it works. Some of these scenes are in of themselves wondrous to watch, but the whole is strangely ephemeral as a result; a bunch of pretty pictures that lack staying power. I certainly wish that more animated films would aim for what Song of the Sea tries to do rather than the cynicism of the major studios, but there are problematic trends in the independent sphere as well, which this movie exemplifies. I’m not even sure if kids will jibe with it all that much. This is the kind of movie adults would hold up as “better” for kids, but it seems more likely to lull them to sleep.
— Dan Schindel