I guess the title kind of gives it away, doesn't it? Still, I'm not one who's given to hyperbole when describing movies, and I'm enough of a critic that I want to nitpick to insane degrees from time to time, but I just can't do it with Song of the Sea. There's just nothing to point out.
This movie is from the same studio that brought us The Secret of Kells (2009), an almost beguilingly charming movie that brought together elements of Druidic myth, passionate Christian faith, history, and Celtic grandeur in a way that I don't think anyone had ever really seen before. When a studio with such a good first effort under their belt takes five years to come out with a second film, you can bet that it's because they're doing something magical.
The only real comparison that's able to be drawn is to the work of Hayao Miyazaki, simply because there's not another animated filmmaker out there who's as honest and earnest with their culture's folklore to compare to. Where Miyazaki-san's work is steeped in spiritual fantasy and a love for his home country not really seen since the Romantic movement, Tomm Moore is a bit more grounded in Western storytelling and keeps his myths well interacted with daily life. His stories are a whimsical blend of magic and the mundane, and it's all carried so well that you wish it could all be true.
The story of Saoirse and her brother Ben is cut from the classic Hero's Journey so closely that you can practically see Joseph Campbell's fingerprints on the screen. In the back of my mind, I was pointing out each and every plot point as it went by, like an eager sightseer out the side of a tour bus. While the story is formulaic, sure, it's executed brilliantly and engagingly. As we so often forget; Tropes Are Not Bad. It's fantastic to see the tools of storytelling so perfectly implemented. It's like watching a master painter or musician craft their art.
Speaking of which, Song of the Sea doesn't lack for anything in the artistic departments. The visuals are jaw-droppingly beautiful, simplistic in design, true to the Celtic roots of the story, and should almost be listed as a character in and of themselves. This story simply couldn't have been told as well with a different art crew, the dynamic is so tied into the feel and flow of the tale. The score is, similarly, simplistic and heartfelt. It doesn't overshadow anything. There's no bombast or leitmotif to be found, but the music is so integral to the plot that you can't imagine the movie without it. Or not even with more of it, the balance is so fine.
And to cap it all off, the voice acting is absolutely brilliant. This is what I long to hear, a return to the days when people were matched to roles that they could play, not a parade of Hollywood "talent" who tries to buy viewers with recognition and star power. Song of the Sea is loaded with people who can actually ACT in their voices alone, and from the adults straight down to the child actors who play the roles of the protagonist pair, every one is a standout.
Honestly, I haven't seen an animated film this heartfelt and earnest since The Lion King, which is probably one of the last times that a studio really just threw their cards on the table and said "let's see what we can really do to tell a story". Song of the Sea hasn't and won't gross well at the box office by Hollywood standards - which is a true shame, because I can't think of a film from 2014 that more deserves to be seen.