The bulk of US feature film animation lately seems to be dominated by a few big studios pumping out tedious sequels to blandly art directed, story weak, 3-D animated Pixar clones designed to sell all manner of plastic toys, video games and Happy Meals. Song of the Sea bursts joyfully into this parched cinema desert of focus groups and franchising like a bracing breath of salty air off the coast of Donegal. Made by Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, nothing I’ve seen recently looks remotely as magical as this gobsmackingly gorgeous piece of animation, except for the studio’s 2010 effort, The Secret of Kells. Song of the Sea boasts breathtaking 2-D visuals, layered with line and soft color, that seem to dance off the screen and into your soul much more intensely than anything you could view with 3-D glasses.


Set on a rocky island off the coast of Ireland, a small, broken (but good!) family spend their days tending the lighthouse and mourning the loss of the matriarch who sacrificed her own life with them to bring her youngest into the world. Father Conor is sad and distant, still grieving the loss of his wife, elder brother Ben is angry and resentful of having to look after his little sister Saorise, who, at the age of six, still has never learned to speak. The children’s main source of love and comfort is their giant sheepdog Cu (Irish for dog) who provides much tender comic relief in the film. Their formidable maternal grandmother comes to visit from the big city for Saorise’s birthday and insists that the children be packed off to live with her, leaving their father, their dog and everything they know and love behind. The children, predictably, bristle at their new circumstances and begin a journey home. Complicating the situation, the parallel world of Irish fairyfolk that lurks just on the fringes of reality begins to creep into their lives as Ben discovers that Saoirse is not just the annoying little sister he has always known but something much more mysterious and profound. Ben must dive deeply into the world of fairies and witches and giants and selkies that he never believed was real to save Saorise and discover the secret of what really tore their family apart.


Not merely the archetypical Joseph Campbell hero’s journey storyline so popular in many animated films aimed at teaching children “a very special lesson”, this plot feels much richer and the emotional depth more authentic and earned. The myths and legends that the filmmakers draw from are so singularly Irish and feel both humanly comforting and frighteningly other at the same time. The way that the ancient fairyfolk hide in plain sight as they blend seamlessly into the modern countryside, with its cars and busses, overhead powerlines, roundabouts full of road trash, bustling cities, sleepy villages, rundown houses and junk piles in the middle of the woods, is nothing short of genuinely magical.


The intensely textured and layered backgrounds and the sleek but intricate character design really pull the viewer into the mythological feeling of the film. There are so many tiny, often funny details to be spotted in every frame that, even had the story been less engaging, this would still be a film that warranted careful attention. This really is a rare and wonderful example of world building from inside and out that will absolutely captivate both children and adults and stand up to frequent viewings. The songs are gentle and lovely and further pull the moviegoer into this liminal world between modern Ireland and ancient Irish legend.


Bottom line, Song of the Sea stands out in a glutted field of 3D animation as a genuine work of joyful art, precisely because it goes back to 2D basics and lets solid storytelling, true emotion and stunningly drawn images weave the viewer firmly into its spell. If you can catch this one on the big screen, do it!