Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 43 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight
In essence the above prayer is the sentiment of Broanch, the mother in Tomm Moore’s new animated film who sings her son to sleep at the beginning of the film. Moore is the co-director of the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells, and if you loved that exquisitely hand-drawn film, you will revel in the new one, which in my opinion should have won the Best Animated Feature at the Oscar ceremony. This gloriously animated film combines Irish myth with Christian values (and images) that might leave you a bit puzzled at times as to what is happening, but always visually engaged by its exquisitely rendered images. You will never miss CGI renderings and such in this absolutely compelling film.
Ben must be 4 or 5 years old when his pregnant mother puts him to bed, closes his eyes, and tells him that he will be the best big brother in the world.
Uttering an apology she disappears mysteriously in childbirth amidst the sea that surrounds their lighthouse home, her husband Conor rescuing the newborn baby daughter whom he names Saoirse. By the time she has reached the age of 4 she has never spoken a word—nor won the affection of her brother who resents her because of the death of their mother. To make a long and complicated story short, their well-meaning grandmother, worried about their welfare living with their still grieving father in a lighthouse on the dangerous sea shore, takes the children to live with her in Dublin. The two run away on Halloween night in the hope of returning to their father. The scores of other children in costumed on the streets add to the mystery, as well as cover their tracks. They are aided by particles of light that stream from the nautilus seashell with finger holes when Saoirse plays it. Ben had once forbidden her to play with it because it was their mother who had given it to him. The lights go before them like tiny fireflies, leading them on and on.
Ben eventually learns that his sister is a half-selkie, a being who lives as a seal in water and a human on land. Playing on the shell the short, haunting song once sung by the mother, the little sister produces magical effects along the way. Their journey leads them through woods and underground as they encounter all sorts of strange creatures elves, owls and an owl witch. It is a wondrous journey filled with beauty and danger. Some of the stories we learn have counterparts in their world, such as the grieving giant whose tears form an ocean being similar to their father who cannot get over the loss of his wife. There’s even one for old Granny. The children’s journey results not only in the reconciliation of their family but also the freeing of various beings who have been turned into stone in order to stop their suffering.
I was fascinated by both the various stories and by the art through which they were told–the swirling lines of the drawings, the characters frequently encircled by light and other objects that suggested mandalas. From the round heads of the children, the half-round shape of the seals’ heads staring at Saoirse, the chambered nautilus carried and played by the children, circular staircases and round doors, and elaborate shots of the children journeying in the center of a pool of light–mandalas seem to be everywhere. I would love to talk with Tomm Moore about this to learn more about his intentions.
The film is supposedly for children, but the complexity of the plot, and somewhat also the darkness of the story, might be a bit much for preschool children, but what an opportunity it offers older children and adults to talk about myth, life and death, and how sometimes we cannot stay with those whom we love. In addition I should mention the lovely musical score by Bruno Coulais and Irish band Kila, (they also contributed to Kells), enhancing the power of the visuals. This is such a beautiful film that I have included more than the usual amount of stills—they display that beauty far better than my words.
Further thoughts on the mandala, probably having little to do with the film itself:
The mandala arose in ancient India and is an important symbol in Hinduism and Budhism. It also appears in Christianity, especially in the art of the medieval abbess Hildegaard of Bingen. A number of years ago I had a conversation with the Sri Lankan Christian artist Nalini Jayasuriya*, who incorporates the mandala in many of her Biblical works—her version of the Last Supper shows Christ and the disciples sitting in a circular formation; one of her paintings, entitled “Christ Mandela,” depicts Christ sitting in the lotus position with his hands blessing, surrounded by a halo of light. Ms. Jaryasuriya said she uses her culture’s mandala because for her Western Christians emphasize too much straight, angular lines indicating a Yes/No, In/Out, Beginning/Ending way of looking at life. She likes the circle or mandala because it is inclusive rather than exclusive, either/or—straight lines separate people; circles are better exemplars of Christianity at its best, she said, inclusive in that we just enlarge the circle to include the outsider. In the article “What Is a Mandala” we read, “Carl Jung said that a mandala symbolizes ‘a safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness.’ It is “a synthesis of distinctive elements in a unified scheme representing the basic nature of existence.” Jung used the mandala for his own personal growth and wrote about his experiences.”
*Some of Nalini Jayasuriya’s lovely works can be seen at: http://www.omsc.org/art-at-omsc/nalini/nalini-portfolio.html
This review with a set of discussion questions and lots more pictures will be in the March 2015 issue of Visual