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‘Song of the Sea’: Celtic legend in a richly detailed animated world

BY MARY HOULIHAN | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

Irish animator Tomm Moore returns with the Oscar-nominated “Song of the Sea,” the follow-up to his 2009 animated feature “The Secret of Kells,” which also won a nomination. Children will find the adventurous “Song of the Sea” more accessible than the more obscure storytelling in “The Secret of Kells.” The visuals remain precisely detailed and subtly entrancing. Before you know it, you are drawn into this world that is both real and unreal.

Moore once again returns to his favorite topic: ancient Celtic folklore and legends. This time around the story is inspired by the myth of the selkie, creatures that live as seals in the sea but can for a time live as humans on land. (John Sayles wonderful 1994 film “The Secret of Roan Inish” is another selkie tale.)

“Song of the Sea,” which takes place on land and underwater, begins on the blustery Irish coast where 10-year-old Ben (David Rawle), a feisty, questioning child, and his sister Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell), a 6-year-old who has yet to speak, live with their forlorn lighthouse-keeper father, Conor (Brendan Gleeson).

In a prologue, we learn that the children’s mother, a selkie, disappeared after the birth of Saoirse (this is never explained to the children, causing some angst). The child retains her mother’s connection to this other world and is at home both in the water and on land. But after her first underwater adventure, their bossy grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) convinces Conor to let her take the children to the city, where they will be safe from watery shenanigans.

Ben, who fought the transfer, quickly realizes the city is making Saoirse sick. Aided by three ghostly fairies discovered in a roundabout, he and his lumbering dog, Cu, embark on the long road to bring her back to their island home near the coast. Along the way, other mythological figures come alive — evil witch Macha, legendary storyteller the Great Seanachai and great sea god Mac Lir. The tune Saoirse plays on her magical shell flute holds the key to unlocking many mysteries.

Gorgeous, misty watercolors suggest the Irish environment; the lush countryside, stone monuments and native animals are the storybook background to the animation. Against this is set a world of animated ghostlike fairies and evil creatures (watch out for owls!) and two wide-eyed children on a deadly serious mission. The combination makes for fresh, vivid storytelling. Warning: Additional viewings may be required to take in so much intricately finessed detail.

(Best animated film is a tough Oscar category this year, filled with a wealth of riches — 20 films fought for the five spots — and fans of the “The Lego Movie” are puzzling over the megahit’s lack of a nomination. A feat of computer-animated Lego engineering, it’s modern, smart and very funny. I don’t consider “Song of the Sea” better, but its old-school, intensively detailed, hand-drawn animation seems to hold sway with the die-hard animators who vote on the nominations. Another hand-drawn epic, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” also was nominated.) 

In the total package that is “Song of the Sea,” attention also must be paid to the score by Bruno Coulais and the Irish band Kila. The team, who also collaborated on “Kells,” enhances the storytelling with traditional instruments, Gaelic lyrics and ethereal melodies.

A surprisingly touching ending brings to fruition the idea that “all of us are connected.” Moore manages this life-affirming touch without being preachy and by simply melding unusual old folktales into a new story filled with visually stunning images sure to captivate children of all ages.

[s3r star=3/4]

GKids presents a film directed by Tomm Moore and written by Will Collins and Moore. Running time: 93 minutes. Rated PG (for some mild peril, language and pipe-smoking images). Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.