Frame for frame, the Oscar-nominated “Song of the Sea”may be the most visually beautiful animated feature film ever. It’s breathtaking.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that as storytelling the latest effort from Irish animator Tomm Moore (his “The Secret of Kells” was nominated for an Oscar back in 2009) is a clunky ride, with an overthought and overwrought plot so complicated that it never tracks emotionally.
Ben (David Rawle) and his mute little sister Saorise live on an Irish island where their widowed father (Brendan Gleeson) keeps a lighthouse. Ben finds his little sister a bit of a pain — especially since she is drawn to swim in the dangerous waters and cavort with the seals who have shown up after an absence of many years.
In fact, Saorise is a selkie, a creature of Celtic legend who is human on dry land but becomes a seal in the water.
When their grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) demands that they come to live with her in the city, the two children hit the road in an effort to return to the island that has been their only home.
Things are complicated by the discovery that the fairies of Ireland — dormant for many years (in fact most of them have been turned to stone) — are awaiting the arrival of a selkie who can reverse their curse and restore them in the natural order of things.
That’s a drastic simplification of a fairly gnarly plot.
From a graphic design POV, “Song of the Sea” is a masterwork in which the waves, rocks, clouds and vegetation seem to be marked by ancient runes. This is a world where caravans of ghostly lights guide the children on their journey, where sea creatures perform an underwater ballet around little Saorise. The backgrounds often resemble animated water colors.
It is astonishingly beautiful.
And, alas, wasted. The film just doesn’t engage. Take, for example, the three bearded fairies — the last of their kind — who befriend the kids. This is an opportunity for something special, for first-rate characters to emerge. (I’m thinking of the three fairies in Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.”) And yet they’re flat, distant, chilly.
In fact, for all its visual splendor, “Song of the Sea” feels terribly remote — a brilliantly designed and decorated box that holds — well, not much.