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Are rarely
Prepared for tragedy.
Little sister
Can transform magically.
Sing peace,
Only wearing coats.
Needs hers,
Freeing silent throats.
And emotion
Animate the ocean.

(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a hay(na)ku, a haiku variant with three lines, one word in the first, two in the second, and three in the third. In this case, I connected several, and since the word hay(na)ku sounds rather Celtic, even if it probably isn’t, I wrote them for last year’s Song of the Sea.)

Just as The Secret of Kells came out of nowhere when it was nominated for Best Animated Feature in 2009, director Tomm Moore’s second film Song of the Sea was released with little fanfare (at least here in the U.S.) but luckily received another Oscar nod to lend it some added exposure. I very much enjoyed Kells, but this follow-up is even better, with deeper themes and more relatable characters. Like its predecessor, Song of the Sea boasts meticulously hand-drawn animation designed to resemble medieval Celtic art, a haunting Gaelic-infused lullaby sung by a magical child, and an intriguing mix of Christian motifs and Irish mythology. Five years in the making, the animation truly is a wonder; every frame has a beauty and balance, replete with gentle curves, jagged spikes, serene curlicues, and other geometric phenomena. Like Kells, nearly every scene could be a work of art, but here the animation connecting them is smoother and the plot more involving. Even modern sights absent from Kells are opportunities for entrancing symmetry, such as roundabouts and power lines. The character designs are more appealing as well, particularly little Saoirse, one of the cutest animated children since Boo in Monsters, Inc. (It also provides a reliable pronunciation for the Irish word for “freedom,” [SEER-sha]. Who hasn’t wondered how to say it ever since they first saw Saoirse Ronan’s name?)

After the loss of their mother, Ben is bitter toward his mute little sister, who discovers her mystical roots as a selkie, the seal equivalent of a mermaid. When their grief-stricken father (Brendan Gleeson, who was also in The Secret of Kells) finally agrees to send them to the city with their grandmother (Lost alert: Fionnula Flannigan), the children journey cross-country to reunite Saoirse with her selkie coat, encountering various members of the Deenashee, or faerie folk, along the way. This main plot could have been enough for the typical filmmaker, but Moore invests special symbolism in the mythological backstory of the giant Mac Lir, who suffered a great tragedy, and Macha the Owl Witch, his mother who turned him to stone. The story can be taken at face value, but it carries certain parallels to Ben’s family (made explicit in the voice acting) to provide unexpected depth for those looking for it.

Both of Moore’s films have attracted comparisons with the works of Hayao Miyazaki, with their relaxed pacing and earnest natural beauty. Ben’s efforts to reverse the transformative curse of a large-headed witch may remind some of Spirited Away, but Song of the Sea is a far more emotional journey than most of Miyazaki’s films. Through magical intervention, Ben becomes more responsible and aware of his brotherly role, and a maternal moment toward the end could either confuse or extract a few tears. For me, it almost did the latter. The accents and the music clearly mark the film as a product of Ireland, and it fits in well with my personal attraction to everything Celtic (including the actual “Song of the Sea,” which wins a spot in my End Credits Song Hall of Fame). It’s the very definition of an animated gem, the kind of lovingly crafted project that may never attract a vast audience but certainly deserves one.

Best line: (Bronach, the selkie/mother) “My son, remember me in your stories and in your songs. Know that I will always love you, always.”

Rank: List-Worthy

© 2015 S. G. Liput

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