Cli-Fi: Director Tomm Moore Speaks On Song of the Sea

He has yet to hit his fourth decade on the destabilized Earth to which his films are (re)connecting us, but Ireland-born Tomm Moore is nevertheless piling up the powerful visual experiences.

Like his Oscar-nominated feature debut The Secret of Kells, his new stunner Song of the Sea is steeped in regional folklore but still a universal wonder. But it is a more personal epic, about the extinction of mythological seal people called Selkies, as explored through a lighthouse family riven by loss and misunderstanding but healed by history and magic. Like its acclaimed forebear, the proudly hand-drawn Song of the Sea is also a mythic journey led by children, as they walk the tightrope between the belief systems that knit them to the planet (and thus each other), and a postmodern future that severs them into solitude.

“Without folklore, there isn’t the same respect,” Moore told me by phone during a visit to New York, explaining Song of the Sea’s selkie birth in a real-life seal slaughter, by the hands of infuriated humans. “So I wondered if there was a way to reinforce the truth of that folklore without people having to literally believe in it anymore.”

Moore and his indie Cartoon Saloon compatriots set about incorporating selkie and other Irish storyteller (seanchaí) folklore and iconography to piece together Song of the Sea’s 2D splendor, which visually trips from sea gods and stone fairies to Sony Walkmans and city streets without sacrificing cohesion or impact.

Cartoon Saloon’s next feature is an adaptation of Deborah Ellis’s debut novel The Breadwinner, about a girl struggling to hide her identity and feed her family under the oppression of Afghanistan’s reactionary Taliban. Helmed by Secret of Kells’ co-director Nora Twomey, Moore said the Saloon’s iteration of The Breadwinner is “trying to involve two styles again, one based on traditional Afghan art and 2D animation that represents the real world of Afghanistan,” circa war-torn 2001.

I spoke with Moore about Song of the Sea, the legacy of Studio Ghibli (which, like Moore, is angling for an Oscar nomination for its most recent film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), the lessons of Richard Williams, reinventing 2D, and how and why we are losing our connection to the planet because we find it too hard to unplug from our Me Magazines.

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