Children of the Sea is the kind of kid’s movie that you can feel good about showing to kids. It’s idealistic, fantastical, challenging, and serious-minded—full to the brim with the risks and rough edges that scare off Hollywood producers. It explores contemporary issues through a timeless story and puts the onus on its teen protagonist to work her way through them. And it’s wildly, wonderfully weird.
We meet high school junior Ruka on the run. The animation captures the vitality in her, the way every movement is bigger and sloppier and more excited than it needs to be. Before she’s interacted with a single other person, we know that Ruka is filled with a reckless abandon, one that comes out in good ways and bad. She’s a star on her handball team despite her size, enough for a girl on the opposing team to trip her; Ruka repays the skinned knee with an elbow to the face that might have broken the other girl’s nose. While her coach sternly dresses her down, all Ruka can think about is the blood seeping out of her skinned knee. She refuses to apologize for her retaliation, and she’s kicked off the team for the whole summer. This small story of (in)justice leaves her free for summer vacation, and establishes the movie’s greatest strength—it takes a genuine interest in the moral position and experiences of youths.
But I mentioned weirdness. Here it is: in short order, the now aimless Ruka has found her way to the aquarium where her inattentive father works, and she meets a boy named Umi (“Sea”) cavorting in and out of fish tanks. He and his brother Sora (“Sky”) share an affinity for the ocean and are the subject of intense research interest because they were raised in the sea by dugongs, a fact which doesn’t seem to faze anyone much. Before long, Ruka is fast friends with the brothers, learning the secrets of swimming beneath the ocean and listening to the language of marine life. A mysterious, seeming ritualistic gathering of ocean life is drawing near, an event that interests human researchers and that may, of course, involve the eponymous children of the sea.
The movie runs on emotional logic. It’s not so much magic realism as it is pure fable, and the story becomes increasingly inscrutable as it goes along, eventually descending into a full-on aquatic psychedelic freakout. But you know its story as clearly as you know Ruka from those first moments of animation. And individual images and moments are so sensual that they carry their own truth. Beautiful, original, and meaningful, this is a movie about things worth treasuring that’s a treasure itself.