SEVERAL years ago, animator Tomm Moore was travelling back from Annecy in France where he had won an award for his movie, The Secret Of Kells. On the flight to Dublin, he met several acquaintances, who noted the award he was carrying. “I explained I had received it for my film and that it was still in the cinema. They said they would definitely go and see it. A few days later, I bumped into them, and they hadn’t gone. For some reason, Irish films seem to struggle with Irish people.”
Secret Of Kells was later nominated for an Oscar for best animated feature in 2009. But Kells, produced by Moore’s Cartoon Saloon studio in Kilkenny city, was a flop at home (recouping only €700,000 out of a €6.5m budget). Audiences had no interest in a gorgeous animation that drilled deeply into the country’s rich mythological heritage. They would rather watch Cars 2 instead.
“I got talking to [Irish director] John Carney about this. He had made Once [the low-budget musical starring Glen Hansard] and had the same problem of getting people to go see it. And I had to hang my head — there I was, complaining nobody would go see my film and I hadn’t seen his. It was only when Steven Spielberg said Once was an amazing film that I thought ‘Well, maybe I should go down to Xtravision and check it out’.”
Moore is about to release his second full-length animation film, Song Of The Sea, which features the voices of Brendan Gleeson, David Rawle (Moone Boy) and singer Lisa Hannigan. A retelling of the ancient Irish myth of the mermaid-like Selkie, the film, Moore hopes, will trump the lukewarm reception of The Secret Of Kells. It arrives in Ireland with wind in its sails, having been acclaimed by critics in the US, where it garlanded Cartoon Saloon a second Oscar nomination (edging out the hugely fancied Lego Movie).
“We wanted to get it out in the US before releasing in Ireland and the UK,” says Moore. “If you get a good reception in America, there is so much more noise in Ireland. And the nomination helped, too, of course.”
Song of The Sea is a beautiful film, if rather serious. It could be interpreted as a repudiation of Pixar and Disney, with their emphasis on cuddly CGI and “teachable moments”. As with the Secret Of Kells, Moore, instead, looks east for inspiration — to the haunting style pioneered by Japan’s Hayao Miyzaki (there are echoes of Miyazaki’s rumination on Japanese mythology, Spirited Away).
Song of the Sea is a heartbreaking tale of a family that loses its mother and of a little girl’s efforts to come to terms with her supernatural gifts (like her mother, she is a ‘Selkie’ — a human able to transform into a seal).
But Song of the Sea is also a meditation on Irish folklore, how it informs the present and has coloured Christianity. It’s a lot to absorb and the movie can sometimes feels worthy, though this is more than compensated for by the gorgeous, hand-drawn style.
“I wanted to reimagine folk tales for a modern audience,”says Moore. “When I was younger, before I got into mythology, I didn’t appreciate the links between myth and the comics and TV shows I was into… As you get older, you realise they draw on older tales. ‘The Death of Superman’ comic strip — that is the Christ story, for instance. It was nice to remind people about the mythology we have.”
The key scene is when hero Ben (named after Moore’s son) dives into a holy well and emerges in a pre-Christian netherworld.
“In the summer, we would go across the fields to the holy well — to Fiachra’s Well,” says Moore. “They would say mass there and yet it was surrounded by [pre-Christian] Sheela Na Gigs and standing stones. The place had been sacred before Christianity.
“When Ben goes into the holy well, he gets dragged down, past the offerings and the rosary beads, past the Newgrange-type carvings… down and down into a deep subconscious. That is how he is able to access the Faerie world.”
If Cartoon Saloon’s first Oscar nomination was a pleasant surprise, the second came as a straight-up shock. With The Lego Movie seemingly a shoo-in for the Academy’s shortlist, Moore did not believe his little picture had a chance. Indeed, in the weeks leading up to the announcement, he invested considerable energy in dampening expectations among friends and colleagues.
“We didn’t think we’d get it — the numbers didn’t stack up. The Lego Movie was in there and that was going to win. With The Secret Of Kells, we had no idea how things worked in LA. This time around, I was able to gauge the temperature. I spent a lot of time going to studios, showing Song of the Sea, shaking hands. I’m a member of the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] and, although precluded from voting, I could go to the screenings [of rival films]. I came back to the lads and said, ‘I can’t see us getting a nomination’.”
In the end, The Lego Movie was a surprise omission from the shortlist and Song of the Sea received a nod. Still, at no point did Moore believe there was a realistic chance of claiming the Oscar.
The animation nomination was voted on by cartoon experts — but the overall winner was decided by the Academy at large, many of whom lacked specialist knowledge or even much interest in animation.
At that point, it was a question of whoever shouted the loudest winning. Chuckling Moore recounts the producers of How To Train Your Dragon 2 taking out a $150,000 full-page advertisement in The New York Times.
That surpassed Song of the Sea’s entire marketing budget (not that it helped, as Disney’s Big Hero 6 won).
“To win the Oscar would have required a miracle,” says Moore. “The nomination really was the surprise. What was particularly encouraging was the response in Ireland. People seemed to react very positively to our being nominated. It seemed like there was better craic back home than out in Los Angeles.”
Hopefully this will translate into bums on seats when the film is released next week in Ireland.