By Cleaver Patterson.
Since that historic evening on the 21st December 1937, when the father of the animated feature film Walt Disney unleashed the game changing force that was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs upon an unsuspecting public, the studio which bares his name has more or less dominated the field of cinematic animation. A few usurpers have attempted with varying degrees of success to wrench the crown from their grasp, but generally Hollywood, critics and the public alike have admitted that the house of the mouse has remained the undisputed king of the feature length cartoon.
Until now that is. Though Disney and its animation subsidiary Pixar continue to hold sway in Hollywood, recent years have seen a number of studios from outside America make an impact on the animation scene. The main one of these is without a doubt Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animators who launched their company in 1985, and have consistently produced films of outstanding quality such as 2001’s magical adventure Spirited Away and the acclaimed From Up on Poppy Hill in 2011. Since 1999 however another company has emerged which, though only producing four feature length works in the interceding sixteen years, have made films so bewitching and of such superiority that two of them have been Oscar nominated. The company is the Irish based Cartoon Saloon and one of the said Oscar nominated films is their most recent release Song of the Sea (2014), a piece of filmmaking so beautiful that at times it seems more like a painting brought to life.
Ben (voiced by David Rawle) is a boy who is angry with life. His father Conor (Brendan Gleeson) – a lighthouse keeper on a remote stretch of the Irish coast – struggles to look after him and his younger sister Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell), following the unexpected disappearance of their mother Bronach (Lisa Hannigan) shortly after Saoirse’s birth. No longer able to cope, Conor reluctantly agrees that their grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) should take the children to stay with her in the city. It would seem, however, that Bronach had something of the fairy about her, qualities she passed on to her daughter and which are now calling Saoirse home to the sea.
Animation as a filmic medium lends itself perfectly to stories imbued with fairy tale or mythological elements. Many of Disney’s most successful films have found their origins in these literary traditions, as have those of Cartoon Saloon. It also helps that they have rooted their two most successful productions – The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea – in Ireland, a country steeped in legend and with a deep, magical tradition. As with their previous hit The Secret of Kells, director Tomm Moore (who co-founded Cartoon Saloon with producer Paul Young) has guided his team of voice artists and talented animators to depict an enchanting vision of the Emerald Isle. In Song of the Sea, the filmmakers capture the ruggedness of the Irish coast where Conor’s lighthouse and cottage sit atop an angular hill overlooking the sea, with the wildness of the island’s inland byways and industrially bleak cities, in a palette of greenish blues, peat-like browns and smoky greys which come alive on the screen.
The fact that actors are never actually seen when their voice animated characters are on screen puts a different kind of pressure on a performance – their voice must convey a host of emotions more often relied upon to be brought alive physically. In Song of the Sea, this feat is captured perfectly in the central characters of Ben and his father Conor by newcomer Rawle, in only only his third lead role, and Irish stalwart Gleeson. Though other characters colour the story – including the virtually silent person of Saoirse (sparsely spoken by O’Connell) and Conor’s strict but well meaning mother (Flanagan) – it is Ben and Conor and their journey to an eventual understanding and love for each other and their family, that give the production a humanity and heart which makes it live.
Ultimately Song of the Sea is all about journeys – whether it be those of Ben and his family as they each find their own place in the wider purpose of things, or those of the mysterious Celtic characters they meet along the way as they follow their often difficult and hazardous path. As with the best fairy tales this one is ideally approached with an open mind and few pre-conceived notions about where it will take you: simply sit back and allow its beauty to wash over you like the waves of the sea which constantly thunder in the background of this mesmerising example of filmmaking. Sixteen years, as mentioned, may seem a long time to produce only four feature length pieces of work. However, perfection takes time and, when the end result is as breathtaking as Song of the Sea, you will agree that it is worth the wait.
Cleaver Patterson is a film journalist and critic based in London. He is the News Editor of Flickfeast website, and regularly contributes to a number of other publications and websites including Rue Morgue and Film International.
Song of the Sea has shown at major international film festivals, and opened theatrically in the UK on the 10th July, 2015.