With most kid-targeted animation these days making full use of 3-D effects, CGI and other technology, the hand-drawn, 2-D “Song of the Sea” is a throwback — one well worth seeing on a big screen.
Saoirse is a 6-year-old Irish girl with a seriously mystical ability. She’s the last of the selkies, women who, according to Celtic legend, become seals in the water but can transform into humans on land. Her mother disappeared when she was an infant, leaving her lighthouse-keeper father (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) heartbroken and brother Ben, now 10, blaming his sister for Mummy’s flight.
Their grandmother (voiced by Fionnula Flanagan) takes them to live with her in the city, leaving behind Dad and beloved sheepdog Cú. Ben hatches a plan to get the siblings back to the lighthouse, setting off a chain of adventures — palling around with seals and fairies, escaping from evil pursuers including a scary owl witch. Along the way they learn to depend on and love each other.
Blending that magical something present in all the best illustrated children’s books with spellbinding music by composer Bruno Coulais and the Irish folk band Kila, the film is a sweetly rendered reminder that sometimes tradition can keep up with high-tech, given director and co-writer Tomm Moore’s imagination and his empath’s knack for tapping into the often-elusive world of children. Watercolor-effect backgrounds are like a soothing eyewash of a contrast to the sharply delineated frenzy of the average Pixar release, and an overall gentle sensibility is an antidote to ever-present snark.
This is the second Oscar nomination for Moore, co-founder of the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon. He also was a nominee for his first feature, 2009’s “The Secret of Kells,” also featuring a young boy on a noble quest. The Academy seems partial to well-executed 2-D this year, as one of the four other nominees for best animated feature, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” is also hand-drawn.
Who knows if either can beat the bells and whistles of “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” Older children might grow fidgety over too few bangs and pops in “Song of the Sea.” But it’s a refreshing respite from popular kids’ fare, an extended bedtime story that has its share of harrowing moments but gradually wraps the soul in a warm blankie. Let’s hope there’s always a place for that.