Gold Standard: TIFF 2014: ‘Song of the Sea’ will make waves in Oscar animation race

"Song of the Sea" director Tomm Moore won an Oscar nomination for his last animated film, "The Secret of Kells."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Slam-dunk best picture Oscar contenders have been in short supply at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, but one premiere here does look like a strong contender on the animation side.

“Song of the Sea,” Tomm Moore’s lovely follow-up to 2009’s Oscar-nominated “The Secret of Kells,” is, like its predecessor, rooted in Irish folklore and haunted by the idea that the country’s storytelling traditions will soon be forgotten.

The hand-drawn animated film tells the story of 10-year-old Ben and his younger sister Saoirse, a Selkie, a being who lives as a seal in the sea and a human on land. Sent to live with their grandmother after their mother disappears, the children engage in a race against time to recover a coat that’s the key to Saoirse’s power as well as her very survival.


Moore began thinking of the story several years ago when he was on holiday in Dingle on the west coast of Ireland and he and his son (also named Ben) came across the bodies of dead seals killed by local fishermen.

“The woman renting our cottage to us told us that this never would have happened 50 years ago when seals had been seen as sacred and people still believed in Selkies,” Moore says. “And I began to consider how we’re fossilizing Irish folklore and trapping it in amber for tourists, but losing touch with its wisdom and its traditions ourselves as a country.”

After “The Secret of Kells” won its Oscar nomination, Moore received a fair number of inquiries about relocating to Los Angeles. But he already had a clear idea about what he wanted to do with “Song of the Sea” and worried that if he had taken it to another animation studio, he would have been asked to retool it and make it more “cutesy.” So he stayed in Kilkenny with Cartoon Saloon, the animation studio he co-founded in 1999.

Independent animation distributor GKIDS, which handled “Kells” and three other animated Oscar nominees (most recently “Ernest & Celestine”), will release “Song of the Sea” in New York and Toronto on Dec. 19 before expanding the film’s run through the holidays to Los Angeles and other cities. The movie will arrive in Ireland in March, hopefully, Moore says, with a little notoriety from its North American release.

“After ‘Secret of Kells’ got its Oscar nomination, everyone in Ireland was so happy and asking, ‘When’s it coming out?’” Moore remembers. “But it had already come out and nobody went to see it. That’s the awful thing: Irish people don’t trust Irish movies. John Carney told me that about ‘Once.’ And I hung my head in shame because, of course, I hadn’t seen it, either.”

Twitter: @glennwhipp