Maybe you’ve heard tell of selkies, fantastical creatures said to live as seals in the sea and as humans when ashore. Maybe you’ve caught screen interpretations, like John Sayles’s “The Secret of Roan Inish” (1994) or Neil Jordan’s “Ondine” (2009). Maybe you have an interest in mythology that’s clued you in to these Celtic legends, or maybe it’s just your Irish pride. Whatever the case, you’ll find it’s a bit of folklore that gets a sweet, aesthetically breathtaking showcase in the Oscar-nominated animated import “Song of the Sea.”
Director Tomm Moore (the 2009 Oscar contender “The Secret of Kells”) crafts a traditionally rendered feature whose doe-eyed characters faintly echo Miyazaki yet offer a beauty all their own. And, oh, the world they live in: a collection of rugged seascapes, cozy quarters, and emerald scenery graced with a picture book’s watercolor nuance. Even a fleeting frame occupied by well water and no characters is an exhaustive mingling of blues, grays, and speckled visual texture.
Do take note, though: the story’s unhurried pace does call for patience, from kids and grown-ups alike. It helps that there’s so much adorably accented charm to the dynamic between young Ben (David Rawle) and his silent little sister, Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell), whose relationship at times plays like a contentious “Charlie and Lola.”
The two live in a lighthouse with their sad-eyed father, Conor (Brendan Gleeson), who still mourns losing his wife when Saoirse was born. Clues abound that the little girl is different, from her strange affinity for those rough seas to her fascination with a shell flute and a mysterious white coat left behind by her mother. When Saoirse disappears for a late-night swim with seals, the audience gets to see her selkie secret revealed. Not the case for the kids’ alarmed granny (Fionnula Flanagan, “Lost”), who packs them off to her home in the city.
Ben and Saoirse run away almost immediately, desperate to return home. A string of enchanted encounters along the way help Ben to understand what his sister is, and that she isn’t just homesick. If she doesn’t get back to the sea and that coat, and find her voice and sing, she and a whole mystical landscape could perish.
High as the stakes are, and for all the adventurousness the kids show, the story doesn’t often stray from its deliberate, gentle approach. It’s a welcome little charge to hear Ben at one point mutter an exasperated “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Or to see the kids suspensefully cornered by an owl witch (Flanagan again) and her minions. But we’ll take the tradeoff of spicier moments for all those picture-book gorgeous ones. If “Song of the Sea” were a book, in fact, you can bet it would come with a shiny gold Caldecott seal on the cover.
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.