Those of us who love Irish legends and folklore will simply delight in the telling of this fanciful tale of fairies, magic, and the unseen spirit world which lies just beneath us and sparkles all around us.
Brendan Gleeson is the voice of the dad, Conor, whose little boy, Ben (David Rawle), looks just like him. Conor’s young wife is pregnant with their second child who is due at any moment. Mom (Fionnula Flanagan) tells her son stories of selkies, part seal and part human, who live in the ocean most of the time, but can live on land for a while as well. She tells of a giant who boldly strode the sea in his seven-league boots, but was cursed with such sorrow that he cried the ocean full of his tears and now is turned to stone beside the ocean. There are fairies who live below ground, and are unseen by most, but they are pursued by the wicked witch and her coven of owls, and unless the fairies can hear the song of the selkie, then they, too, will turn to stone and their winsome presence will be lost and silenced.
The boy loves his mom, of course, but believes all the bedtime stories are just that. He does love to hear his mom sing. Her voice is clear as a bell and faintly echoes the sea that they live beside in the cozy home by the lighthouse on top of the hill. There’s a big white sheep dog, Cu, and it seems to be a very loving intact family… until it’s no longer intact. Mom dies giving birth to Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell), and poor dad is so distraught that he often seems glum and distracted and distant. Saoirse, for her part, is a gentle soul, but is so quiet that she’s 6 years old and doesn’t yet talk. She obviously loves her big brother, though, and will follow him anywhere. Sometimes he gets annoyed with her constant presence, and at other times he’ll swat her hand away when she tries to take his hand while they’re walking. But though she irritates him, he loves her, and the depths of that love are soon to be sorely tested.
Saoirse hears the sea calling her like a siren, and one night she goes for an ocean swim alone. She’s not in any danger; her friends, the seals, will see to that. But her visiting grandmother is so alarmed at finding her washed up on the shore in the morning that she insists on taking the kids to live with her in Dublin. They hate it, of course, but dad is just too sad and preoccupied to fight it. He even throws away the favorite fur coat of Saoirse’s, the one that, unbeknownst to him, allowed her to transform into a seal in the water.
In downtown Dublin both kids are like, well, seals out of water. The boy decides he must try to make his way back home, to the sea, and luckily meets up with his faithful dog, Cu, who has come looking for him to show him the way home. He tethers his sister to himself with a dog leash. She’s frightened and hesitant, but she follows him because she knows he loves her, and her harping grandmother does nothing but fuss at them constantly, mostly for being children.
What follows is an epic boy’s journey through the fairylands. Ben soon realizes that his sister is something special, a selkie, and he now understands that his mom was one, too. The spirit world awaits the song of Saoirse to awaken them from their stone-cold slumber. But first, Saoirse must survive capture by the wicked owls and await the rescue from her big brother who is courageous and resourceful and really will do anything to save her.
It’s a charming story with wonderful, colorful animation and a masterful accompanying orchestral soundtrack. It’s a great bedtime story for all ages, so its nomination for an Academy Award is well-deserved.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.