‘Song of the Sea’ Review: Dazzling Animation, Original Storytelling from the Makers of ‘The Secret of Kells’

There’s plenty to look at — and a whole lot to puzzle over — in this exquisite and enigmatic adaptation of an Irish epic

We’re only two weeks into 2015, but it’s safe to say that “Song of the Sea” (which had a brief awards-qualifying run in December) will be one of the animated standouts of the year.

Directed by Tomm Moore (“The Secret of Kells”), who once again finds inspiration in Celtic mythology and iconography, “Song of the Sea” entwines supernatural realms and modern day Ireland in gorgeous storybook worlds rendered in watercolor pastels and inviting curlicues. Rocks and trees boast wrinkles, blemishes, and knobbly knees, while fairies take any number of delightfully fanciful forms: owl-human hybrids, cascades of iridescent hair, or carvings in an ocean-side cliff.

The odds are also pretty good that “Song of the Sea” will be the year’s most inscrutable family film. Seemingly more concerned with cultural preservation than with immediate entertainment, Moore plops us amidst an obscure Irish folk tale about selkies — mythical creatures that take human form on land and transform into seals underwater — and asks us to wade our way through the epic, serpentine plot with relatively little exposition. (John Sayles previously brought these creatures to the big screen in his live-action “The Secret of Roan Inish.”)

The lack of narrative hand-holding is a refreshingly demanding approach, but it does constrict the film’s emotional resonance, since we’re frequently unsure why certain characters make the decisions that they do.

song_hires_6Also admirable, if occasionally vexing, is Moore’s choice of an obtuse and snotty preteen as his protagonist. Far from an everyboy (but lacking the particularities to flesh him out into an anti-hero), Ben (voiced by David Rawle) is rarely kind to his sickly six-year-old sister Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell), who has yet to speak. Devastated by the mysterious disappearance of his wife on the day Saoirse was born, their father (Brendan Gleeson), a lighthouse keeper on an island that barely holds afloat the small family and their mutt, offers up his children to be raised in the noisy, dirty city by his elderly mother (Fionnula Flanagan), who ominously reassures her son that she knows what’s best for everyone.

As soon as they arrive at their grandmother’s house, the siblings plot to return home. Saoirse’s secret identity as a selkie, one of only two inheritances from her mother, initially proves useful: a constellation of lights guides their way back to their father when she plays a recorder made from a giant seashell. But without her other bequest, a white coat that will finally allow her to claim her voice, she’s vulnerable to the spells of a powerful fairy who will turn her into stone.

Saoirse’s helplessness reduces her to a damsel-ette in distress to be rescued early and often by her brother, who proudly takes up the superhero mantle by donning a cape, a life jacket, and old-fashioned red-and-blue 3-D glasses. The pair are occasionally helped by good fairies, some of whom have accommodated to life in the 21st century by dwelling in traffic-choked roundabouts.

There’s a vague lesson about being nice to one’s siblings, but the central journey ultimately feels shaggy and thematically incoherent. That’s not necessarily a drawback in this case, for it contributes to the film’s authentic sense of pre-Christian folklore, which is rarely framed in modern narrative conventions. Still, the old-timey novelty doesn’t make up for the fact that it’s often difficult to understand the characters’ motivations or, sometimes, even their reactions. No one greets the news of Saoirse’s selkie-hood with wonder or shock, for instance, least of all the little girl herself.

Still, in the context of an industry that’s rapidly globalizing into universally marketable blandness, a film that wears its specificity on its sleeve is a welcome rarity. And in a movie culture dominated by vampires, zombies, and demons, a distinctive tale that asks us to imagine unfamiliar creatures feels new and necessary, even when it’s just faithfully adapting very old stories.