When Isao Takahata’s “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” lost out to “Big Hero 6” in the competition for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards last year, it was a reminder of how thoroughly 3-D computer animation has eclipsed more traditional techniques. In the 15 years since the award was introduced, it’s only been given to non-CGI films twice: Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” in 2003, and Nick Park and Steve Box’s “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” in 2006.
In a fairer world, Takahata’s movie — a ravishing, hand-drawn masterpiece that will endure long after its flashier Disney rival has been forgotten — would have walked home with the prize. But it wasn’t the only old-school 2-D animation to get snubbed that night.
Tomm Moore’s “Song of the Sea,” which is making a belated appearance in Japanese cinemas this month, was also nominated for the Oscar, and it’s likely to appeal to viewers who were intoxicated by “Princess Kaguya.” Like Takahata’s film, it’s deeply rooted in mythology, with a story that, a few technical accoutrements aside, could have been told at any point in the past millennium. Though it makes more extensive use of computer animation, its visuals retain a distinctly handcrafted feel, with lush watercolor backgrounds that are like a picture book brought to life.
The gentle pacing and uncluttered narrative also have a storybook-like quality to them, not so far removed from the 1982 animated version of Raymond Briggs’ “The Snowman.” Younger children accustomed to the tempo of the average Pixar production may even find it a tad ponderous, but parents are unlikely to regret making the trip to the cinema.
“Song of the Sea” is set around the craggy Dingle Peninsula in southwest Ireland, where the film’s truculent 10-year-old protagonist, Ben, lives in a lighthouse with his father and younger sister, Saoirse. It’s a landscape steeped in mystery, and since the action takes place during the 1980s, the characters aren’t too busy playing “Pokemon Go” to notice the magic around them.
Saoirse has reached the age of 6 without uttering a word, and while her father treats her with unswerving affection, Ben regards her mostly as an irritant. He still blames her for the sudden disappearance of their mother on the night of her birth.
Unbeknownst to him, their mother was a selkie, a magical creature — familiar from Gaelic lore — that lives in the sea as a seal but can shed its skin to assume a human form on land. When Saoirse discovers that she has inherited these supernatural gifts, her father panics and sends the two children to live with their city-dwelling grandmother.
The arrangement, however, doesn’t last long, and the siblings are soon hopping it cross-country in a bid to get home and reunite an ailing Saoirse with her selkie coat, the source of her powers. Along the way, they’re aided by fairies and the family dog, and hindered by Macha, a witch who’s been turning the denizens of the supernatural world into stone by stealing their emotions.
This is the second time that Moore has delved into Irish folklore: His first feature, 2009’s “The Secret of Kells,” was based on an illuminated manuscript dating back to the ninth century. In interviews, he has compared his approach to the way that Miyazaki folds elements of Japanese mythology into his work, most notably in “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro.”
“Song of the Sea” has echoes of both of those films, in its visuals as well as its story, and it suffers a little in comparison. It’s an awfully handsome picture, and its central tale of loss and reconciliation would resonate even without the magical elements. But if Moore hopes to inherit Miyazaki’s mantle one day, he might want to work harder on developing a voice that’s unmistakably his own.