Song of the Sea

In general I think watching a film is more rewarding than looking at a painting. After all, a good film will give you multiple great visual compositions but it will also give you a narrative and music and so on. Still, occasionally I will see a beautiful but dull movie and think "oh, I wish that had just been a painting."

Take for example Song of the Sea, which is an Irish animated movie from last year about a little mute girl who has to learn how to sing a magic song so she can stop a supernatural tragedy from happening. The film is consistently gorgeous to look at, and if I came across some of it's cells on a museum wall I would be very impressed. But I didn't see it in a museum, and I wasn't just seeing a few isolated frames. No, I was watching a whole feature length movie, and the result was much less impressive than it's parts.

I'm not kidding when I say that Song of the Sea is museum worthy. Take for example the picture at the top of this article, which is clearly inspired by religious iconography. Notice the central placement of the main figure, and also that she has a halo and is surrounded by lesser symmetrical figures - those are standard features of stained glass portraiture. The branch imagery is reminiscent of a crowd of outstretched hands reaching towards a holy figure. If her arms were extended instead of in front of her chest and if those owls were switched out for angels you could place that drawing in almost any Catholic Church in the world and no one would bat an eye.

(Well, they might bat an eye at her anime-ish big eyes but you know what I mean. Also, she would probably have to be a man, but that wouldn't take much work - her gender isn't very apparent from that picture.)

Or consider this frame which is clearly influenced by Gustav Klimt, whose painting "Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer" I have reproduced below. Klimt liked to contrast organic figures against bright geometric backgrounds, and you can see that Song of the Sea used a similar patterning, and texture to create a lit-by-candlelight-mood. Of course, the perspectives are different, with Song of the Sea picturing it's figures from a God's eye view while Klimt was looking at his model head on, and Klimt is focusing a lot more on his central figure, but they are both going for a busy aesthetic that's only readable because the image is designed to draw your eye to the center of the frame.

Song of the Sea's influences also extend beyond the classics of Western art. For example, if you compare the following frame from the film's climax to the famous woodblock print the Great Wave of Kanagawa (also reprinted below) you'll notice a lot of similarities. Both are stacking waves on top of each other as if they were paper cut-outs. They both alternate between still crests and frothy crests. The main difference is that Song of the Sea focuses more on it's figures, one of whom is riding a seal as if it was a flotational device, but the main emphasis in both illustrations is on the destructive power of an ocean storm.

Unfortunately, a movie has to do more than remind its audience of well loved paintings to be worthy of love itself. Paintings demand that an onlooker bring something of themselves to the experience, whether that's a feeling of awe, or curiosity, or an earnest attempt to add a narrative on top of a non-moving non-talking image. In contrast, movies are supposed to do most of that legwork for the viewer - they are supposed to use their camera movements and narrative structure to guide their audience through a compelling story. Song of the Sea was trying to do that, but sadly it's story was so dull that I could barely pay attention to it, even though I was trying.

A story about a magic little girl trying to ward off a supernatural event could be interesting, but Song of the Sea simplified it's narrative far too much and it also moves through it's story beats so slowly that it couldn't really maintain my focus. It's great that the illustrators put so much work into bringing this story to life, but the film's fluid look doesn't feel alive because the characters feel more like illustrations than people. You can't appreciate how beautiful a film looks if you're actually looking down at your phone, and it's hard to watch a movie with this little narrative tension without wondering what's going on over at Facebook.

As I get older I try to be more thoughtful about what I consume and how I consume it, and so a film like Song of the Sea is very disappointing to me. A hundred years ago it would have been awe inspiring; most painters can only make a handful of paintings a year, but this movie was creating twenty six gorgeous images a second for ninety whole minutes. But there can be a downside to that sort of excessive bounty - it becomes harder to appreciate any specific image when you're being bombarded with so many of them. A movie that's as beautiful and inert as Song of the Sea might as well be a painting, because if it wasn't capable of moving it's stillness would be a feature, not a bug.

Winner: The Cat

Song of the Sea on IMDB