Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Raya And The Last Dragon, the new SpongeBob movie, and the half-cartoon Tom And Jerry all available this week, we’re looking back on some of the most under-appreciated family-friendly animation.
There’s a magical picture-book quality to Song Of The Sea, the second in director Tomm Moore’s Irish folklore trilogy, which started in 2009 with The Secret Of Kells and concluded with last year’s Wolfwalkers. Like those two other films, Song Of The Sea draws from the captivating myths of Moore’s homeland, guided by a child protagonist, a shapeshifter, and hypnotic visuals that absorb the viewer from the very first moment.
The film unfolds initially from the perspective of young Ben (David Rawle), who lives with his parents in a lighthouse perched on a cliff on a remote Irish island. He’s learning songs and the ancient Celtic myths from his mother the night she gives birth to his little sister, Saoirse, then disappears. From here, the film jumps ahead six years to find an older Ben, now clearly resentful of the sibling he feels stole his mother from him. Little Saoirse isn’t speaking yet but she has other skills—the selkie powers awakened by a coat she discovers. Like the Wolfwalkers, Saoirse is part animal, able to change into a (really delightful) white seal to frolic and play with her brethren in the slate-gray ocean that erupts into kaleidoscopic color under the waves. As it turns out, Saiorse is the last of the selkies, and her destiny lures the siblings into a magical world.
At a time when so much CGI tends to look alike, Song Of The Sea stands out just for its appealing inventiveness, making a strong case for the enduring possibilities of traditionally hand-drawn animation. Eventually, the kids are scurried off to Dublin by their Granny (Fionnula Flanagan, who also voices an owl-like Celtic goddess), and though Moore captures the urban setting in somber, amber tones, he also offers a few fetching images from the perspective of the elderly woman’s budgie, as the other kids in town run around trick-or-treating. Elsewhere, a watercolor wash of blues, greens, and purples—accented by woodcut-like designs—shade the more mystical parts of the kids’ journey, ushering them into hallowed territory. With help from The Great Seanachaí (Jon Kenny), whose infinite beard is made up of millions of stories, Ben learns that the tales his mother told him are true, and that they bind everyone.
Discussing Song Of The Sea, Moore once remarked, “We have a huge responsibility when we make movies aimed at kids to say something they need to know, instead of just distracting them with fart jokes and talking animals.” He was inspired to make the movie after he and his son discovered a litter of dead seals on a beach, killed by fishermen for depleting the fish stock; in ancient times, that never would have happened, because the seals were seen as sacred due to their selkie ties. Song Of The Sea shows how these myths can still be valuable (as well as visually remarkable), using them as a springboard for an epic journey and a conflicted sibling relationship. It’s Ben’s realization that he needs to do whatever he can to keep his family together that grounds Song Of The Sea’s myths in a relatable reality for kids and their parents alike. The majestic imagery is a bonus.