Song of the Sea: An Ode to the Hand Drawn Line

Song of the SeaAt present the animation industry is globally dominated by CGI technology and it’s now incredibly rare that you’d see a hand drawn 2D feature film. Disney long ago gave up hand painted film cells to make way for the ease of computer generated productions. Pixar’s revolutionary style has been joined by other big name production companies such as DreamWorks and Sony. What I grew up watching (Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time for example) seems a long way off from the awe-inspiring computer based features that rely on incredible software programmes to develop the dreamscapes animation makes possible.

Breaking with the popular methods is ever more difficult it seems. Why spend the money and time labouring over painstaking hand drawn animation when in a third of the time you can have the feature on the screen and the next production underway. CGI makes sense and you get a totally different product. In an increasingly challenging and expanding market there’s pressure to stand out, to have a distinctive style and be recognised as a leader not a team player. If you can’t beat them, join them. Sometimes CGI is even used to imitate a hand drawn style, but in a far more timely fashion.

Thankfully, there are exceptions. There is still a lingering interest in the ‘old ways’ of animating that is no longer resigned to niche audiences. In some ways, this ongoing interest can be traced back to Studio Ghibli’s Oscar win with Spirited Away in 2001. It’s not fair to endorse this as the only avenue for hand drawn animations breaking into larger cinema distribution channels, but it did seem to open the floodgates for new audiences who had not been exposed to Japanese animation before. Anime, aside from Pokemon on daytime TV, wasn’t a genre that family audiences frequented due to the narrow global distribution channels. In fact, if a parent I know could name a non-American produced animated feature they’d shown to their children before this I’d be impressed.

Cartoon Saloon, an Irish production company, is another example of a team sending tremors through the animation industry. Director Tom Moore’s The Secret of Kells joined the highly praised ranks of Studio Ghibli over six years ago when his magical Irish legend took to the festival circuits and given mainstream distribution. His second feature Song of the Sea follows in the same steps with an Irish folklore based narrative that encompasses the same duly adored style. And when I say following in the same steps, I really mean it.

The Secret of KellsThe quality of the imagery is the most encouraging aspect. The animation is clean cut, uncompromising and beautifully hand drawn. Just as I’ve always said of Ghibli’s productions, you can see the care taken and feel the production team’s emotional attachment to the world they have created. Enchanting forests are contrasted with dismal cities, and the strange majesty of the sea is gorgeously visualised in a narrative that relies on the straightforwardness of Irish folklore.  

The landscapes seem simple compared to the 3D qualities of Disney’s Frozen, but beyond originality they have a purpose. Where the visuals of The Secret of Kells imitated the scrolls of monastery books and scriptures, Song of the Sea looks like a wonderful children’s picture book or the hand painted walls of a child’s room. In other words, it presents its story in a familiar way that audiences can visually understand and identify with.

This is the perfect place for spiritual creatures to pop out of stone formations and imagination to overwhelm the humdrum happenings of everyday life.

For children, the most satisfying way to demonstrate their imagination is often to get out the crayons and show an adult. For me, Song of the Sea harnesses this deep desire to share creativity. Tom Moore has mentioned in interviews that Irish folklore is being forgotten, and through their films, his team aim to capture the mystery of something too special to lose. As someone who knows very little Irish folklore, I’m familiar with the Celtic imagery that for me growing up looked disinteresting and dated compared to the cartoons on TV. When you pass down folklore, you reimagine it and tell it in a way that is suitable for your audience. Song of the Sea seems to translate some of the enchanting elements of Irish mythology and transform them into something modern and familiar, but using the tradition of the hand drawn image.

2D animation has a heritage and a backbone that can not be pushed aside so easily. Song of the Sea and its success is testament to the enduring enthusiasm for traditional animation within the industry. It’s understandable why this is no longer the most popular process, but I feel that the appreciation of these films have garnered is evidence enough to support the ongoing distribution of 2D animation. I understand that the next Cartoon Saloon film is already in production, and I can’t wait to see its journey from festival circuits to mainstream cinema screens.


I am a film article and review writer based in Belfast with a BA and MA in film studies. I love Asian cinema and documentary film. I’m fascinated by cinematography and adore animation. I’m opinionated and passionate, and just like any good cinephile would declare my investment in film knows no bounds. There’s nothing I won’t watch and very little I won’t have something to say about.

6 thoughts on “Song of the Sea: An Ode to the Hand Drawn Line

  1. I have to agree about simple animation being preferable to the Pixar and 3-D alternatives so popular today. I have never felt comfortable with the new style, and always prefer to see older ‘cartoon’ films. I have not seen the films mentioned, and don’t know that I will. However, I also have no desire to see the latest incarnation of ‘Toy Story’, or others of its ilk.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  2. I enjoyed this review, thanks. It’s good to hear that there are alternatives to CGI which – and I speak as a bloke who loves big science fiction movies – is starting to become a little boring.

  3. The Book of Kells is a four-volume set of the New Testament gospels drawn by Celtic monks in the 8th or 9th century. Granted, the artists did embellish the Christian iconography with images from Celtic myth, but it was not created in defiance of the monastery’s abbot, nor did it require the eye from a wood demon for its completion. That aside, “The Secret of Kells” is a charming cartoon about the role a boy, a cat, and a fairy played in bringing the book into existence. Of course, it is all invented, and presented in a language for children, and propagates the beloved myths of Ireland while circumventing the less popular tales of sacred bookmaking. Are we to imagine these monks spent years drawing psychedelic mandalas through the joining of their collective unconscious around an oak nut? Not while the Vikings stormed the gates of their monastery, they didn’t. Still, the misrepresentation of its subject matter borders on the pernicious, especially as regards the way it fabulates the origin of The Book of Kells. Considering how exact the artists have been in reproducing the general look of the book, it would seem they could have been more up-front about its content.

    • I don’t see what relevance this analysis has to Laura’s article, which primarily concerns “Song of the Sea” and old-fashioned, non-CGI animation. “The Book of Kells” wasn’t a great film, but it was certainly different, and the overall effect happily transcended any conceivable “misrepresentation of its subject matter.” The latter quibble is generally irrelevant anyway to criticism of a feature film or any work of fiction, for that matter–which should stand on its own from an aesthetic perspective. Think of the scores of quality films that contain historical “misrepresentations” … you’d find nary a flick based on fact that doesn’t get at least one fact wrong–deliberately or inadvertently. Hardly “pernicious” stuff, whichever way you look at it.

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