The studio that brought us “The Secret of Kells” are back with their newest animated feature. And with such a large expectation from both fans and critics alike, can it stay above water?
First of all, let’s start with a brief talk about “The Secret of Kells”. This small Irish animated film exploded in popularity and I consider it today as one of the finest examples of animation outside of the powerhouses of Disney and Pixar. The story was captivating, the design was almost flawless, and it was just so different from anything else that was going on at the time. It is a modern classic that people will enjoy for many years to come.
So… no pressure for the newest film then, eh? Set in more modern times, we see a family living in a remote lighthouse, after their mother passed away. The father is beset with grief, and the two children are not getting on with each other. The son blames his sister for the passing of his mother, since she was born at the exact time of her disappearance. Things are going from bad to worse, but the daughter seems to have some magical powers, and is constantly drawn to the ocean. Despite having no ability of speech, it is found out that she is a Selkie – a being that can free the trapped Faeries in Ireland and return them to Tir na N’Og. All this is set within a cross-country adventure with her brother, and his devoted pet dog.
Just like its predecessor, “Song of the Sea” is deeply rooted in Irish mythology and folklore. It takes inspiration from this for both story elements as well as the animation design, it gives the film a really original aesthetic and feel. And it appears that over the years they have only improved their craft, because the imagery is the biggest selling point for this film. It is FUCKING OUTSTANDING. There were moments that just had me in a complete trance, the detail and vibrancy of the colours is staggering. And because the story is set right across the breat of Ireland, you get many different variations of the style too. From smog-covered urban cities to rugged coastlines and strange underground caves. As far as from a purely visual sense, this scores big points.
That Mythical influence I mentioned earlier is a high scorer too, since really it is an area that had been tapped into not that often at all. The world of the Faeries, Selkies, Mac Lir, Tir na N’Og, Macha, it is all fascinating. Where “The Secret of Kells” used this for a more minor influence, here it is the main element and pivot for the storyline as a whole. Fans of folklore will love it, since the world of Celtic folklore is pretty damm wonderful. Think of Pixar’s “Brave” and you’ll have a small idea of what it looks like.
And as expected, the production quality is excellent. The animation feels extremely fluid and well stitched together, the lighting sets off the scenes beautifully, the score works well, and the locations have a lot of love and care put into them. The first scene you see of the lighthouse set atop a cliff by a roaring sea is majestic. Just that alone framed would look great.
BUT… and I am afraid where the die hard fans should sharpen their spears and light their torches. Because now I really need to delve into the issues this film has. Let’s start with a technical fault, the sound mixing for the voices is at times erratic. Some points they were hard to hear, and would then suddenly crank up in volume. For example, when the son is on the boat in the first act in the background of the shot, it was like he was completely muffled. Maybe this was an issue with my DVD, or the TV’s speakers, but the specific points where it happened makes me think not.
More problematic however, was how the family is portrayed in the first act. Look, we know they have suffered a massive loss and all that, but they are simple vile to each other! The brother acts like the most stick-up-the-ass spoiled brat you can imagine, while the father is one pint of Guinness away from a full on mental breakdown. They are portrayed as being unrealistically cruel and malfunctioning, especially when the father’s emotional range is for the most part, not that well developed at all.It makes for being sold into the story difficult when all this piss and vinegar is being thrown about everywhere.
Lastly was the setting of the film in a (kind of?) modern location, it doesn’t exactly benefit or improve the telling of the tale. One or two scenes utilise it, but I can’t help thinking that setting it in a kind of timeless aspect would have improved things. Having old wooden radios and crank-start cars alongside a portable cassette player just confuses the time the movie is set in even further.
Once it was all finished, this was one of the most frustrating films I have had to review so far. Everything about it was screaming for me to set it on a plinth and adore it for years to come. The animation is spectacular! The lore if wonderful! And yet those problems keep bubbling up to the surface, to the point where I can’t think of the film without thinking about them. It was so close, SO DAMM CLOSE, to being this year’s most exciting animated feature alongside “Inside Out”.But instead I get serious vibes of “Brave” from this – beautiful animation, design, and source material, but poor decisions in the character and story layout that make it slip and tumble.
But unfortunately, “Song of the Sea” doesn’t reach that height, and instead gets caught in the waves and thrown off course. Don’t get me wrong, you still should definitely see it, there are plenty of good aspects that outweigh the bad. But you won’t be blown over by the overall experience in the same way you were by this studios previous feature. And that is such an incredible shame, it honestly does make me feel a little sad. Still very very very, VERY good…. but should have been spectacular.
Thanks for reading!