Song of the Sea: A balancing act between Beauty and Loss

One of life’s greatest pleasures and most enduring memories is a well-illustrated children’s story book. Personally, Kenneth Grahams’ “Wind in the Willows” is my version of Marcel Prousts’ Madeleine. Opening that book and seeing the E.H. Shepard illustrations is like perusing a family album. I am amongst family and friends. Instantly I am six years old again, smelling the dampness of the earth with Mole, feeling the thrill of “simply messing about with boats,” with Rat. It brings with it an entire world, deeply buried but immediately accessible. Such is the power of a classic.

Occasionally,……very occasionally, a movie can do that too.

In this case, the Oscar nominated “Song of the Sea” by Tomm Moore and his Kilkenny based Irish studio, Cartoon Saloon, seems to have combined the best of both worlds.

Tomm Moore at work on artwork from The Secret of Kells

This is the second offering from this abundantly talented and original team, the first being “The Secret of Kells” which also received a nod from the Academy. Both are palimpsests for a book, a beautiful, glowing, illustrated child's picture book put into motion.

This movie along with its forebear seem to make the case for 2D hand-drawn animation and all the things it can do that its more sophisticated sister techniques, cannot. Like; allowing the imagination to extrapolate its own version of a different reality, and allowing a child (or an adult, come to that) to project wholly into the avatar of the characters. It can also visually layer realities so that the “here” and the “not here” become a seamlessly immersive experience. This is how children experience story, and is why, no matter how technologically sophisticated and advanced we get, simple, expressive pictures that drive a story by image and mood will hold their appeal. It is also a practical demonstration of that old dictum that the simplest things are always the hardest to do. These movies, made in overlapping tandem, took more than a decade to produce.

The artwork of Cartoon Saloons offerings which include TV shorts and kids programs is rooted firmly in a Western, specifically Irish/Celtic aesthetic, which, for eyes attuned to the Japanese influence of Manga and Anime is a bit of a jolt to begin with. I found myself wondering, during the opening sequence, if I would like this. But as it unfolds, the universality of the themes and the sheer, overwhelming beauty and richness of the animation carries one along deep into the belly of the story so that one quickly abandons judgement for wonder. To say that this movie is visually glorious would be a serious understatement. It is an entrancing, eye-popping moveable feast that keeps one spellbound till the last frame.

There is the foggy humid feeling of water and scudding cloud, wind and the light on open sea created by atmospheric water-colour skies that move and change. The lush green-ness of rural Ireland and the dark chill of stone cities rendered in those curling, growing fractal patterns so familiar to Celtic Art.

I remember reading in one of many interviews that the artists tried to convey the feeling of “standing with wet socks in a meadow.” They have succeeded admirably. It is a tactile sensory delight from beginning to end. I could go on and on about the excellence of the artwork, my recommendation is, just see it for yourself, you won’t regret a minute of it!

The story emerged from Moore’s experience of seal slaughter along the coast of Ireland  and the realization that the falling away of the old world has left the natural world open to misunderstanding and a human disconnectedness that can only end in tragedy for both sides. It made me think of the apocryphal quote from Baba Dioum of Senegal, “in the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” By resurrecting and interweaving the old Gaelic folktales of the Selkies, the seal people, and of Macha the owl-witch and the giants turned to stone, Moore and his team are layering the wisdom of the old world on top of the everyday joys and misfortunes of the new and joining the ranks of a long and distinguished line of story weavers showing children where to find the tools they will need to face the challenges of their lives both personally and in a larger community. It is a vital task and one not to be sneezed at in our culture of perpetual mindless fluff entertainment.

I am hoping that this becomes a children’s classic. It has all the makings.

It is also a cautionary tale about what happens when we stop communicating with each other, the turning in on oneself and isolating that can come from grief, loss, sadness, depression. Any of a number of the ills contingent on the human condition, ancient or modern. The family of the story is shattered by the loss of the Mother, the father, absent and lost in his grief, the grandmother anxiety ridden and conscious that all is not well but unable to effect any change beyond the surface details of “what it needs to look like.” The young boy Ben, lonely and confused and deeply resentful of his younger sister whose appearance precipitated the disappearance of his beloved mother. The journey that the children must take, along with the family dog, a delightfully rendered sheepdog, involves all the usual stuff, the facing of fears, the acceptance of change and a willingness to sacrifice for others, but it involves a greater community than just the purely human, it is a picture of how the actions of humans affect a deeper, older, more universal sphere of existence, without which we will live smaller, sadder, poorer lives. It speaks to all of our concerns about the state of the planet we live on and the great dying –off that is happening, the consequences of which our children will have to live with.

This is a story about restoring balance on many levels, distilled from the experiences of a people who have lived time out of mind in relationship with a fickle weather system on a dangerous coastline, laced with sadness and loss but filled with a sense of appreciation for the beauty and grandeur they are afforded and a partnering in the natural cycles of the land. It is a jewel of a story entirely done justice by its visual setting……. I wish it every success and a wide audience.

I was rather miffed to discover, while researching the movie, that our very own San Francisco Cartoon Museum hosted an exhibition in May of this year entitled “Songs and Secrets” with the artwork of the two movies, Song of the Sea and Secret of Kells alongside each other. Tomm Moore and some of his artists were there to sign books and field questions and I would have so loved to have had the opportunity to meet the creators of this magical world.

Sadly, the Museum is leaving its present premises shortly due to the high demand for rentals in its location, its future uncertain. Another victim of change in an uncertain world. I hope this is the beginning of a new chapter for it and that it will not leave us diminished with regard to those things we cannot touch but make our world a better place. A lesson this movie is trying to teach. Check out their website by clicking the button below.