Every scene is magical, every image a work of art in “Song of the Sea,” the latest Oscar-nominated feature from the folks who gave us “The Secret of Kells.”
“Sea” is an Irish folk tale, a modern-day account of selkies, fairies and elves in Ireland, full of adult concerns and sadness, childhood wonder and delight. It’s one of the best children’s cartoons of the past few years.
A pregnant mother sings her little boy, Ben (voiced by David Rawle) to sleep, telling him stories of the magic creatures that once roamed Ireland and reassuring him that when his sister is born, “You’re going to be the best big brother in the world.”
That’s important, because mom, tragically, leaves the picture. It’s just lighthouse keeper dad (Brendan Gleeson, of course) to raise tiny, speechless Saoirse. Dad still mourns Mom, and Ben resents the sister who cost him his mother.
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Ben is a fearful boy. Living in a lighthouse on a storm-tossed island, he wears 3D glasses, the cape of a would-be super hero, and the lifejacket of a child scared of the water.
He calls his sheepdog his best friend and tries to ignore the toddler in his care. But Saoirse is drawn to the sea, lured by the friendly faces of the seals that beckon her into the deep. Ben needs to do a better job of watching over her.
Granny (Fionnula Flanagan) lectures her son about the proper place for his children and takes them ashore, to the city. “I know best,” she says. But she leaves Ben’s beloved dog behind, and when he resolves to follow his own hand-drawn map back home, Saoirse tags along.
Ben remembers the tales his mother told and is shocked to run into fairies, most of whom have had their “feelings” torn from them, turning them into stones. The fairy stones are everywhere. And the few fairies still alive need a selkie to sing her song to set them all free.
Menacing owls track the kids. They are in the employ of Macha (Flanagan, again), an owlish witch who only wants to protect us all — magical creatures and Ben, the “human child” — from pain.
“Kells” director Tomm Moore concocted this story (with Will Collins writing the script) from the legend of an Irish giant who suffered a terrible loss. “Such was his anguish that he cried a whole ocean,” Ben remembers Mom telling him. His grief turned him to stone, an island. What will wake him up?
In an age when 3D computer-animated films dominate this corner of the medium, Moore makes films defiantly hand-crafted. Every setting has an exaggerated, 2D expressionistic edge — fanciful cliffs and mountains, houses and seals, sea captains and fairy storytellers.
“Song of the Sea” covers some of the same ground as the John Sayles live-action fantasy “The Secret of Roan Inish,” and is every bit as engaging, a child’s fantasy in which a destiny must be fulfilled, a boy must grow up and everyone — adult and child — learns that losing your grief, your “feelings,” is the most tragic destiny of all.