Written by Erin Fraser
As a cinephile I have a love/hate relationship with the Academy Awards. On one hand, for one night the general public seems to care about film as much as I do, but on the other, the awards themselves seem to be more and more a popularity contest than any measure of quality. Take the Best Animated Feature category, for example. This award has been handed out for the past fourteen years and nine of those have gone to Hollywood’s biggest animated studio, Walt Disney Pictures. All of those nine films and three additional winners from other studios were made with CGI animation, which has become the new standard in children’s entertainment. Only one hand-drawn film and one claymation feature have ever won, and that was within the first five years of the award’s existence. Unfortunately, to my mind the category has become a reflection of popularity and box office as opposed to celebrating the best in animation.
This is especially troubling if you are a film lover and an animation enthusiast like myself. While 3D computer animation may be the most popular mode of production in Hollywood, studios like Aardman in the United Kingdom, Cartoon Saloon in Ireland, Ghibli in Japan, Folimage in France, and Laika in, yes, the United States, continue to use traditional hand-drawn and stop motion techniques with stunning results. These studios put artistry and creativity before merchandising and attempts at box office domination.
So you can see my frustration and sadness when I read the Academy Award results last month (I wouldn’t dare watch them, as like I said they make me mad…and you wouldn’t like me when I’m mad) and learnt that Disney’s Big Hero 6 (Don Hall and Chris Williams, 2014) won over its fellow nominees, including: Laika’s The Boxtrolls (Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, 2014), Cartoon Saloon’s Song Of The Sea (Tomm Moore, 2014), and Ghibli’s The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, 2013). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Big Hero 6 quite a lot and thought it was a better film than the other CGI nominee, How To Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois, 2014), but it was nowhere near as imaginative, eloquent, or moving as some of its competition.
Both [Song of the Sea and The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya] feature gorgeous hand-drawn animation with a watercolour aesthetic, both are inspired by well-known folklore from their respective countries, and both are coming-of-age stories that centre on girls with mysterious and magical origins.
While The Boxtrolls was lucky enough to receive a wide release and many have had the chance to see this wonderful film in theatres, Song Of The Sea and Princess Kaguya have not received quite the same widespread attention from filmgoers, despite their nominations. This is a shame, as both films are deeply affecting stories that are told with some of the most beautiful animation in recent years, if not ever.
The two films are surprisingly similar. Both feature gorgeous hand-drawn animation with a watercolour aesthetic, both are inspired by well-known folklore from their respective countries, and both are coming-of-age stories that centre on girls with mysterious and magical origins. They are both very unique cinematic experiences that touch on different and deeply affecting aspects of growing up and finding one’s place in the world.
Tomm Moore’s Song Of The Sea
Irish animator Tom Moore, best known for his previous Oscar-nominated feature The Book Of Kells, brings us the story of Ben and his little sister Saoirse in Song of the Sea. Six years ago, on the night of Saorise’s birth, their mother disappeared mysteriously and suddenly, leaving her husband to care for and raise the two young children on a secluded island where he mans the lighthouse. Ben resents Saoirse; she is drawn to the sea and Ben, who perpetually sports a lifejacket, is afraid of the water. When she is discovered missing from her bed one evening as she has taken off for a clandestine swim, the children’s paternal grandmother insists on taking them with her to live in the city, separating Ben from his beloved dog Cú and Saoirse from the sea. It doesn’t take long for the children to sneak out of their beds and begin their perilous journey back home. Along the way they learn the truth about the ancient Celtic myths their mother passed on to them and why Saoirse has never spoken a word in her short life.
Seemingly drawn from motifs in traditional Celtic art, the recurring use of circles and spirals underscores the connection between the characters, the land, and the magic that infuses both.
Visually, the film finds depth in flatness. The stunning animation uses a rich colour palette that perfectly evokes the Irish setting. Seemingly drawn from motifs in traditional Celtic art, the recurring use of circles and spirals underscores the connection between the characters, the land, and the magic that infuses both. I firmly believe that there is a level of detail and an intimacy in 2D hand drawn animation that 3D CGI computer animation cannot replicate, and, as we see in Song of The Sea, Moore is one of the best artists currently working in traditional animation.
The film is inspired by the myth of the selkie, Celtic mermaids who transform from seals to seemingly human women when on land. The legends describe how these shape shifters wash up on shore and take human lovers, but this always ends in tragedy, as the call of the sea is too strong for the selkie to resist. In Song Of The Sea however, selkies hold the power to liberate daoine sídhe, or fae folk, who have been turned to stone by a powerful owl witch named Macha.
As opposed to tragedy and romance, the traditional topic of the stories of selkies, Moore uses the myth to craft an engaging tale about the importance of family and dealing with one’s emotions. While early on in the film Ben resents Saoirse and wants little to do with her, over the course of their journey he begins to appreciate her, especially when faced the prospect of losing her. He has to confront his greatest fear, the sea, in order to save her and keep his family together. Saoirse, for her part, has to push past her feelings of sorrow and find the inner strength to both accept her destiny as well as her place among her family. Meanwhile, the whole family must cope with the mysterious disappearance of their mother, learning to accept her absence and come to terms with their loss.
When faced with criticism that his films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth were too scary for children, Jim Henson claimed that he felt that it wasn’t healthy for children to always feel safe and that it was important to scare them. Moore understands this. We have a tendency to view childhood as an idyllic carefree time in one’s life, and feel that children need to be protected from fear and sadness. The truth is, though, that growing up is full of anxiety. It is just as important for children to learn how to process these emotions as it is for adults.
In Song Of The Sea, Moore beautifully expresses this with a villain who bottles up others’ emotions so as to not have to deal with feelings at all, good or bad. The horror of this is apparent, but it is also a realistic representation of the way children and adults alike are told to deal with their feelings. Our family of heroes shows us that not only takes strength to face one’s anxieties head on but also that it is a necessary part of growing up and living a full life.
Isao Takahata’s The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya
In The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, filmmaker Isao Takahata presents a similar narrative of growing up and coming to terms with one’s place in life, but with a larger, more sweeping scope.
Takahata is a living legend in the field of animation. One of the founders of the acclaimed Studio Ghibli (the other being the celebrated Hayao Miyazaki), the 79 year-old director is responsible for many well-loved films and series including Heidi: A Girl Of The Alps (1974), Only Yesterday (1991), Pom Poko (1994), My Neighbours The Yamadas (1999), and Grave Of The Fireflies (1988), which is one of the single most emotionally devastating films ever made. Kaguya stands to be his final film, and many would argue that it is his best.
While a distinctly Japanese tale, Kaguya’s story is also an exceptionally universal one. The film provides an empathetic portrait of growing up and coming to terms with one’s identity.
Based on Japan’s oldest folktale, “The Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter,” the film follows the life of a mysterious young woman from her infancy to her adulthood. While out working one day, a bamboo cutter discovers a tiny girl inside a glowing bamboo stalk. He takes the baby home to his wife and the two decide to raise her as a princess, believing her to be royalty. As she matures, her parents decide that it isn’t proper to raise her in the mountainous countryside, so they relocate to the city where she can learn to be a noblewoman. There she is given the name Princess Kaguya. However, life in the city doesn’t suit Kaguya, and she falls into a depression as she misses her friends and her carefree life in the countryside. Eventually she comes to understand that she was born a princess on the moon and was sent to Earth to live a mortal life. As Kaguya begins to feel the pull of the moon drawing her back home, she clings strongly to her life on Earth, knowing that she will lose all of her memories once she ascends and takes her place in the moon kingdom.
The film was in production for over five years and the craftsmanship shows on screen. Animated in a style similar to Takahata’s previous film, Yamadas, Kaguya has a very distinct style and look that is unlike the typical anime aesthetic. Rather than bright colours and angular lines, it resembles traditional Japanese paintings and calligraphy with a watercolour palette and fluid movement. The brush strokes that make up the characters are apparent, and rather than immerse the audience in a perfectly constructed world, Takahata lays bare the film’s amazing artistry so that you can appreciate the details in every frame. The result is a film that feels timeless.
While a distinctly Japanese tale, Kaguya’s story is also an exceptionally universal one. The film provides an empathetic portrait of growing up and coming to terms with one’s identity. Kaguya’s childhood in the mountains is idyllic; she has a large group of friends to play with and enjoys a great deal of freedom exploring the environment. When she is moved to the city she is confined and isolated. She is taught how to dress and act like a lady, a process that includes uncomfortable dress and painting her teeth black. Here the film takes on the classism and sexism found in society at the time. Other girls gossip that Kaguya’s common parents are trying to buy her nobility and look down on her for this; while Kaguya finds herself at odds with the strange customs of femininity that she is expected to adhere to. Sadly, when she returns to the countryside to visit her friends, especially Sutemaru, a boy she had grown especially close to, she discovers that they have moved on without her. This realization causes her to grow distant. As her inherent virtues, her beauty, become known throughout the land, powerful men begin to declare their love for her and seek her hand in marriage, and she toys with her would-be suitors in humorous but cruel ways. Her despondency is deeply felt as she deals with expectations and responsibilities that are placed on her because of her status and gender, and not her own desires.
As the moon begins to call her back, Kaguya becomes even more distraught. Despite her unhappiness, she is attached to her life on Earth and wishes to hold on to it. She returns once more to the mountains to be with Sutemaru, who has grown up and now has a wife and family of his own. They spend one last moment together flying through the air and Kaguya reveals that she would have been happy with him. This final meeting is bittersweet, as both Kaguya and Sutemaru cling to her humanity. Ultimately though, she has to accept her destiny and rejoin her immortal place among the celestial court. In doing so, she finally concedes to leaving her childhood behind and becomes an adult.
Song Of The Sea and The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya are both powerful and empathetic films about the process of growing up and accepting one’s place in the world. Tom Moore and Isao Takahata are both exceptional filmmakers and animators who tell visually striking stories with deeply moving characters. While not as popular as other animated films that came out this year, these two are undoubtedly the best, regardless of what the Academy says.