Pixar has a lot to answer for. Mainly in a good way, though. From Toy Story onwards it’s done some terrific work, raising the bar in terms of the technical quality and narrative sophistication of children’s films. It has been a vast improvement on the ‘this’ll do – it’s only for kids’ blight that affected so much of the field back in the day.
Nevertheless, there’s a down side. Pixar’s house style – brightly coloured, near photo-realist wacky comic adventures – has become ubiquitous, with lots of other studios churning out sub-Pixar material to clog up the multiplexes. But Song of the Sea, a new film from the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, offers something different altogether, and that’s much to be admired.
Essentially it’s the tale of a family – young Ben, his little sister Saoirse and their parents – who live in a lighthouse. Early on, they experience a tragic loss which, quite understandably, hangs over them for years to come. By the age of six, Saoirse still can’t talk and Ben is much better friends with the family sheepdog, Cú. Then, one Halloween, Ben, Saoirse and Cú find themselves embroiled in an urgent magical quest involving faeries, seals and other figures from Irish legend, all of which touches their family deeply and directly.
Actually, it’s not easy to talk about the film without giving too much away. But more than that, it’s so visual and lyrical that it defies description anyway. It needs to be seen, ideally on a cinema screen if possible. The animation, hand-drawn rather that computer-generated, is truly glorious: rich, stylish, luminous, amazingly detailed, like a fantastic picture book come to life. The beguiling, melancholy musical score, a collaboration between composer Bruno Coulais and Irish folk band Kíla, is also hugely effective. In fact, the whole piece, as the title suggests, almost works more like a piece of music than a narrative-heavy film. For young viewers more used to Disney’s output, the big difference that will hopefully strike them is the much greater use of pure sound – even silence. Of the main characters, one is a child who doesn’t speak and the other’s a sheepdog. It’s not exactly driven by dialogue.
There’s real depth to be found here. It’s a film packed full of contrasts, between the genders, between young and old, between the city and the country, and between reality and myth. Despite touching on some difficult issues along the way – it’s all about loss, really – it’s not remotely heavy handed. Throughout, it remains a gentle, engaging adventure without shying away from the occasional sadder moments. It’s tempting to compare it to Pixar’s Finding Nemo, with which it shares some touchstones. Fine as Finding Nemo is, though, Song of the Sea is much more affecting.
In fact, a more direct comparison might be the work of legendary Japanese animation Studio Ghibli which has a similar knack for remarkable yet lower-octane tales in which child characters discover magic hiding in their hedgerows. And French director Sylvain Chomet, maker of Belleville Rendez-vous and The Illusionist, has worked in a similar area, with super-stylised, almost surreal animation with a great dynamic range.
But that’s not to take anything away from Song of the Sea which creates something profoundly Irish of its own. To be fair, at times, the feather-light plot threatens to evaporate entirely, and the gear changes between the wordless, lyrical scenes and bits of exposition are a little clunky. But a more robust approach would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Besides, this is only the second feature from director and Cartoon Saloon co-founder Tomm Moore. His first, 2009’s The Secret of Kells, was very promising and that promise is certainly starting to pay off here. On this showing, today’s young film-goers are likely to get misty-eyed over the mention of Moore’s films in later life. It’s always a delight to see something fresh and new in the busy, variable world of children’s films but, make no mistake, Song of the Sea is simply a delight, full stop. Appropriately enough, it’s enchanting.
By Andy Murray
Song of the Sea is showing in cinemas now, more info at www.facebook.com/songoftheseamovie/info