Song of the Sea takes place in a semi-realistic Irish setting perpetually on the verge of disintegrating into an amorphous space of lines, shapes, and colors. Tomm Moore, the director of the critically successful The Secret of Kells, has pushed his distinctive hand-drawn and hand-painted style further into wispy abstraction, juxtaposing his minimalist, clean-lined drawings of people against backgrounds of expressionistic watercolor and other organic textures. Sometimes these backgrounds are so cloud-like that they seem to be disintegrating at the edges of the frame; other times they approximate the jagged, shiny surface of an emerald rock. In one of the film’s recurring visual gestures, environments collapse around characters until they’re floating in layers of circles, a sign of Moore’s willingness to visualize his metaphors directly.
Even as it entertains increasingly far-fetched detours, the film’s folkloric narrative offers an ideal vehicle for this pictorial play. Moore opens on a pre-credits sequence that establishes the emotional crux of the story: Ben (voiced by David Rawle), an only child living in a lighthouse at the tip of a rock in rural, coastal Ireland, is gifted a seashell instrument by his pregnant mother just before she walks out on him and her husband, Conor (Brendan Gleeson). The episode yields a mute baby sister named Saoirse, though Ben is too young to comprehend why or how this happened, and Moore reveals the entire sequence in short, dreamlike bits so as to align the audience with his awestruck confusion.
Fast-forward several years and Ben shares a typically antagonistic relationship with Saoirse. Their father bears the brunt quietly, often dipping out to the village bar to drown his sorrows (for what is ostensibly a children’s film, Song of the Sea tackles depression with a welcome frankness). Conor’s mother (Fionnula Flanagan), a pudgy old grump from the city, pays a visit to their seaside abode insisting that an urban setting is a safer place for the children, to which Conor feebly complies. In the process of their reluctant departure, Ben and Saoirse’s beloved Old English Sheepdog Cu gets left behind, and the rest of the film charts their secretive journey away from their grandmother’s house to reunite with Cu.
This is, on the surface, a fairly simple story of sibling bonding and a family coming to terms with loss, but Moore refuses to play it straight. In a hypnotizing montage early on that fully activates Moore’s imaginative strengths, we learn that Saoirse has a special bond with seals and can transform at will. During the pilgrimage back home, there are a number of unexpected encounters that allow Ben to unpack this mystery. Ultimately, it leads him to a trio of ghoulish forest dwellers, a pack of hostile owls, a bearded underwater spirit, and a suspiciously soft-spoken witch, Macha (also voiced by Flanagan), who turns creatures to rocks and stows away their sorrow in jars to grant them an allegedly more peaceful existence. Even adults will find themselves lost and adrift in all this whimsical detail (which edges at times into incoherent plotting), but the emotional core of Song of the Sea is fully realized throughout. That last character, in particular, hints at the way in which the film sees the harboring of pain as essential to being human.