One of my favorite books from my childhood was Stories From The Sea, a collection of folktales from around the world revolving around one thing:
These stories answered such questions as why the sea is salty, where do storms come from, who Sinbad the Sailor was, and why Disney had the right idea when they altered the ending to The Little Mermaid. More to the point, they introduced me to the wondrous mythical creatures known as selkies. What are selkies, you may ask? STORY TIME!
On a cliff by a shore lived a lonely fisherman. Day in and day out he pulled his nets and sold his fish, but had no wife and children to come home to. Early one morning, the fisherman heard the sounds of singing and laughter coming from the beach. He followed it until he found a group of beautiful women with flowing hair and large brown eyes, naked as the day they were born, dancing on the sand. He saw a pile of discarded seal skins nearby and instantly knew who they were – selkies, the souls of people drowned at sea who could turn themselves into seals.
“And what if I should take one of those wee skins for meself, I wonder?” the fisherman murmured. He snatched up the nearest skin, but one of the selkies saw him and cried out. The others panicked, grabbed their skins and fled into the sea, yelping like seal cubs at dawn as they changed back and swam away. Only the woman whom the fisherman had stole from remained; “Please sir, give me back my skin, I cannot return home without it!” she cried. But the fisherman refused, and told her he would return it to her seven years to the day if she agreed to be his wife. Left with no other choice, the selkie capitulated to him.
They were married and in time she gave him a beautiful son, one who brought light and laughter to her days. But as the years wore on, the selkie grew thin, pale and sickly. Her heart longed for the sea. If she continued on this way, she likely wouldn’t live to see next summer. When the seven years ended, the selkie demanded that her husband return what he promised her, but once again he refused; he was afraid that she would leave him if he gave back her seal skin.
As it so happened, their son wandered into the barn the following morning and found a beautiful, soft coat of silky fur hidden on one of the beams. Inhaling the sweet familiar scent, he knew at once that it belonged to his mother. The selkie was overjoyed when he brought it to her and flew to the shore, wrapping herself in her skin and becoming whole again. The son chased after her, begging her to take him with her. Alas, he was mortal and she was not, so the only thing she could do was give him a small glimpse of her world beneath the waves before returning him home to his father.
The lad grew up into a beloved storyteller with a voice that could make even the most hardened soul weep. On early mornings, one could see him out at sea whispering to a seal in the waves. Some say it was his mother, the selkie, passing on her songs and tales to him; why else would he have the same beautiful brown eyes as she?
I actually bring this tale up because many selkie stories, including today’s movie, follow the same pattern as the aforementioned one. Critics praised Song of the Sea as an original masterpiece, but if you were already familiar with this one story going in, then it’s incredibly easy to spot where things are going. And I’m gonna be honest here…maybe it’s because I know the story so well that I’m not as in love with this movie as most animation aficionados are.
Our film opens with a few lines of WB Yeats’ poem The Stolen Child read by the main characters’ mother Bronagh, played by Lisa Hannigan, who I just realized while writing this is also the voice of Blue Diamond from Steven Universe.
So let’s get this out of the way, the movie is smegging gorgeous. Dare I say it but the animation’s possibly even better than Secret of Kell’s animation – and this is only Cartoon Saloon’s second feature! The backgrounds are no slouch either; while Kells aims for a medieval-inspired style and succeeds on every front, Sea goes for a softer, watercolor-inspired look that still captures the beauty and detail of Irish folk art.
I’ll give you a minute to get your jaws back up from the floor.
Bronagh sings the title song in lovely lilting Gaelic to her young son Ben while painting a mural of mythical Irish characters in his room. The mural also features a woman who looks suspiciously like Bronagh turning into a seal so you know right away that this is one of those movies that throws all subtlety out the window.
Bronagh’s husband, a lighthouse keeper named Connor (Brendan Gleeson, back again), shows up to put Ben to bed. Ben is so excited because his mother’s preggers and he can’t wait until the baby arrives because they’re gonna be best friends and okay people, set your watches because you just KNOW one of them is about to bite the dust at any moment. Name a movie that starts with a family happily all together with no problems that stays that way after the first five minutes.
Bronagh plays Ben to sleep on her seashell, which she gives to him. But Ben wakes up in the middle of the night to see his mother, her hair turning white, tearfully apologizing before running off into the sea. Flash forward six years later where we see Ben hanging out on the beach with his little sister Saorise and Cú, a sheepdog so adorable he gives Max from The Little Mermaid a run for his money.
The scene does a good job establishing three important things about Ben: he’s so afraid of the water that he wears a life preserver while on dry land (that or he’s a South Park vegan), he knows a lot about folklore thanks to holding his mother’s stories so close, and most importantly, he is a little shit. I really don’t like Ben. He’s always complaining and treats Saorise like crap because he blames her for Bronagh disappearing. I get it, he’s a child who doesn’t know how to handle his emotions, not helped by the fact that Con has become emotionally distant and mopey since Bronagh went bye-bye, and he doesn’t know the full story about what really happened to his mom. But he’s so nasty and negative all the time, or at least when Cú isn’t there to brighten things up. He does get better as the film goes but part of why I rarely watch Song of the Sea is because how horribly he acts for the first half leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
On the flip side, I adore Saorise. She doesn’t talk despite the fact that she’s six years old, a source of concern for everyone around her except Ben, but that doesn’t stop her from being the most expressive and cutest character in this feature. In fact, I wish she was the main character more than Ben. A cute mute girl learning about her secret selkie heritage and going on a journey to discover the truth, restore magic to the world and give herself a voice? Sign me up!
Soarise notices a bunch of seals staring at her from the water and is drawn to them. Ben is all “Dad said not to go swimming but I ain’t comin’ after you, go ahead and drown,” but Cú rushes in to save her. And because his leash is attached to Ben, he gets dragged in and freaks out over drowning in three inches of water.
Not kidding either, the moment plays out exactly like that.
Ben rats Saorise out to their father, but he’s too busy staring wistfully out at the sea, which comes part and parcel when your daughter’s birthday (which is today) is also the anniversary of the day your wife died. Also, he tends to play favorites with Saorise anyway, which is another thorn in Ben’s side. This should make me more sympathetic towards him, but good on Con for showing the girl some much-needed affection that her brother certainly ain’t giving her.
While this is going on, Con’s mother Granny (Fionuala Flanagan) heads to the island on the boat helmed by Dan the ferryman (Jon Kenny). Granny coldly rebuffs Dan’s attempts at friendly small talk and Dan calls her “you ol’ witch” behind her back as she drives off. On the surface, it’s an introductory scene between two characters, but later on, the foreshadowing is plain to see. The movie cleverly employs the Wizard of Oz gimmick of each ordinary supporting character having a magical otherworldy counterpart, even going so far as to share the same voice actor. Dan loves stories because his magical other half gathers and relates stories, and he calls Granny a witch because her counterpart is a witch. Granny’s not intentionally evil but has that overbearing “I know what’s best for everyone” attitude that anyone in a tight-knit family will instantly recognize; it’s also something she has in common with her witchy analog, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Granny greets her family by complaining how an idyllic lighthouse is no place to raise children and forcing Saorise to change into appropriate (ie. outdated) clothes. The party kicks off with all the fun and excitement of a funeral. But because Ben can’t stop being a dick weasel for two minutes, he spoils it by smashing Saorise’s face in the cake just as Granny tries to snap a picture.
Con sends Ben to his room and leaves Granny to look after the kids while he goes off to the pub to honor Bronagh the only way he knows how, by crying in his beer. Saorise wordlessly asks Ben to read her one of their mother’s stories and he tells her about the Owl Witch.
No, this owl lady doesn’t fight a tyrannical emperor while battling trauma stemming from a childhood curse and training a teenage bicon to be her apprentice. This one is Macha, mother of the mythical giant Mac Lír who became a nearby island because she stole his feelings until he turned into stone. Ben tells Saorise that Macha still goes around stoning people for shits and giggles during Halloween tomorrow so she’ll do it to their dad and there’ll be no one around to love Saorise and DEAR GOD I’ve never seen anyone’s offspring I hated this much who didn’t have the last name Trump. Yes, Ben does show an ounce of regret after he scares Saorise and I know his whole character arc is that he has to learn not to be a cockwaffle to his sister, but if he wants me to actually want to follow his journey, well…
Ben goes to sleep having met his douche-canoe quota for the day and Saorise gets her payback in the form of “borrowing” Bronagh’s seashell, which Ben yelled at her for trying to play earlier. She blows a few notes and some floating lights appear that lead her to a chest hidden in her father’s closet. Inside is a white coat just her size. She puts it on and follows the lights out to the sea where the seals are waiting for her. She changes into a seal and if there’s one scene, just one scene from this movie you should watch, whether or not you decide to sit through the rest of the film itself, it’s this:
If the rest of the movie was like this, then I’d hardly have anything to criticize.
Unfortunately, Granny’s all-knowing intuition that comes with being elderly kicks in and she wakes up in time to see Saorise wash up onshore. Ben finds Saorise’s coat and shows it to Connor, asking where she got it from. Con’s response is to take it, lock it back up and throw the chest and key off the top of the lighthouse into the sea. Worse, he gives into total despair at the thought of losing Saorise like he lost Bronagh and lets Granny take her and Ben away to live with her in the city without a fight. But hey, it’s not such a bad thing; it finally got me to feel bad for Ben as he rightfully rails against his father about how it’s unfair that he should be roped into Saorise’s punishment for night swimming, especially when Granny refuses to let him bring Cú. You can break every law known to man, but separate a kid from their dog and you cross one line too many.
And all this leads to another point of contention I have.
The film is called Song of the Sea.
The marketing centered around the magic of the sea and especially that one aforementioned scene.
I walked into this film expecting the ocean to be what the forest was to The Secret of Kells, a central place that showed the wonder of nature where the characters spend the vast majority of the runtime getting stuff done when not frozen in awe of its beauty.
…and yet the majority of Song of the Sea is spent as far away from the sea as you can get! We hardly spend any time there! Only less than ten percent of this movie is at the sea!! That scene was a freaking tease like Lucy with the football, taunting us with the promise of fantastical underwater delights and adventure before snatching it away saying “Nope, you’re spending the next hour and a half on land, lol!”
We were promised Song of the Sea. Instead we got Song of the Landlocked. It’s hard to trust anyone after that.
Anyway, Ben apparently has a photographic memory and an enviable resistance to motion sickness as he draws a fairly accurate map during the drive so he can get back to Cú. They arrive in Dublin where Halloween celebrations are underway – wait, does this technically make Song of the Sea a Halloween movie? Should I have waited until October to review this? Regardless, Granny refuses to let the kids join in the fun and traps them in the exact same home that every single Catholic grandma lives in.
Saorise’s not putting up with Granny’s idea of fun (tea and tunelessly singing to oldies on the radio) and tries to escape through the wardrobe. She doesn’t find Narnia but she does find a big fur coat. She wraps it on and jumps in the shower playing her shell, hoping to turn into a seal again, but instead pisses Granny off. She sends Saorise and Ben to bed at three in the afternoon (whine about it all you want Ben, but when you get to be my age, you’ll wish you could go to bed that early). Granny throws away the coat, which three little people disguised as trick-or-treaters steal from the trash. Ben, meanwhile, takes the opportunity to run away. Saorise follows him and refuses to go back to Granny’s when he tells her to. He concedes eventually but forces her to follow him on Cú’s leash. Really, Saorise’s face says it all.
Ben also throws another fit when he sees Saorise playing the shell, but before he can do anything about it, the three little men snatch up Saorise and carry her to their hideaway in the middle of a roundabout. This results in Ben getting dragged through traffic and nearly hit by a truck, which automatically makes them my new favorite characters. The three men reveal themselves to Saorise as the Denashee (aka “The Good Neighbors”, aka “the little folk”, aka fairies). They’ve been waiting for a selkie to come along and free their brethren, whom Macha turned to stone, and open the way to Tir na nÓg, the otherworld (aka the spirit world) with her special song. They entertain Saorise with a version of the folk tune “Dúlamán”, with Ben filling in the missing words while he hides behind the stone figures in a nice nod to this Irish folktale. It’s a fun upbeat number and…the more I think about it, is it safe to call this movie a musical? There’s a couple of songs and one of the plot points revolves around singing and songs. I don’t know, leave your thoughts in the comments.
The Denashee give Saorise what they think is her selkie coat and are alarmed when she doesn’t sing. Ben reveals himself and tells them the truth, though the Denashee aren’t happy when Ben refers to them as fairies.
Ben tells them he knows where Saorise’s real coat is but their merrymaking has alerted Macha’s owls to their location. They swoop in to kidnap Saorise and suck the Denashee’s emotions into jars, turning them to stone. Saorise plays the shell, which breaks the jars and partly restores them. The Denashee tell Ben and Saorise they have to find her selkie coat in order to reverse Macha’s curse and give Saorise her voice, and the children escape through an underground tunnel. Was I the only one who expected the Denashee to join them on their quest serving as their mentor/sidekicks, and wound up extremely disappointed when they weren’t? They were a lot of fun and left a big impact in just this one scene. Even worse, it means we spend a good long portion of the film with just Ben talking and no one to tell him to quit lording over Saorise.
The kids hop a bus full of children in costume and also a very familiar face…
They ride out into the country until Saorise sees the floating lights outside leading off to a different path. She gets them thrown off the bus so she can follow them. But Ben insists that only he and his map know the way and drags Saorise off the road into the wilderness. Luckily for him if not for us, Cú has escaped from the island and finds Ben before he can be eaten by wolves. Ben is thrilled because this means Cú can lead them back home, but things aren’t looking good for Saorise. She’s been growing sick without her coat, and her hair begins slowly turning white as a sort of ticking clock (insert obvious Frozen reference that Unshaved Mouse and Jen The Great Opinion Giver made first).
It starts to rain and the kids seek shelter in a holy well, which I can best describe as a miniature shrine. And HOLY SHIT this must be a holy place because Ben does the first actual decent thing for his sister, carrying her on his back through a field of stinging nettles making extra sure that she’s not stung, and doing it all without a single complaint.
Saorise repays his kindness by finding herbs to soothe his stung legs and Ben begins to finally accept her as his sister. But Saorise worries she’s holding Ben back and follows the lights down the well. Ben panics when she doesn’t come back up and he’s too scared to go after her, but Cú dives right in, taking Ben with him. The leash snaps and Ben comes up for air in a cave where he meets The Great Seanachaí, a super hairy person who’s eager to talk to any human being he stumbles across despite his incredible lack of attention span or social skills.
Now, while I can claim to know a fair bit about various kinds of folklore, I admit that I’m fairly lacking when it comes to the Celtic side of things. Most of what I learned about the figures from Song of the Sea comes from Unshaved Mouse’s review, and according to him, the filmmakers played with the original mythology more fast and loose than most Disney adaptations do. But it still works in service to the film and isn’t so far off the mark that it stops resembling the myths altogether. In Irish culture, the Seanachaí was a storyteller, a highly revered position in ancient times because they were the keepers of songs, stories, and poetry. And since the notion of creating hard copies wouldn’t stick until a couple centuries later, they had to memorize everything. Tomm Moore, the director, took the idea of a one-man literary hard drive and created The Great Seanachaí, who has more hair than a Rapunzel convention and holds a story in each individual beard hair. He shows Ben the story of a
girl giant who cried a river and nearly drowned the whole world.
This is Mac Lír, whose tears were brought on by a tremendous heartbreaking loss. If you haven’t guessed, he’s Connor’s mythical parallel, a man so caught up in grief after losing someone that it consumes his life. Mac Lír’s tears became an ocean that threatened to flood the earth until Macha sent her owls to end her son’s suffering, though it ended with him becoming stone.
So Thanos has people defending him snapping half the universe out of existence to “save” it, but when Macha has to petrify her own son to save the world, she’s the bad guy. Typical double standards.
Ben asks the Seanachaí to help him find Saorise, but he’s got nothing in his files on plain mortals. That changes when Ben mentions she’s a selkie as all the fair folk are connected and her story is in one of his hairs. The Seanachaí finds it and sees that Macha has captured Saorise and is turning her to stone that very moment. If Saorise dies, either by Macha’s hands or if she doesn’t get her coat back in time, all the fair folk dies with her, so the stakes are high. The Seanachaí gives Ben a hair to follow to Macha’s place, warning him that breaking it means a story is lost forever and to not lose hope. As Ben follows it, he sees Bronagh’s past flashing on the walls and learns what I’m pretty sure we already knew an hour ago: that Bronagh was a selkie who had pregnancy complications and was forced to return to the sea and give up her mortal life so Saorise could be born. I wish I could say it left me as choked up as Ben because it is beautifully done and is exactly what the boy needs to realize how much of a bastard he’s been up til now, but the fact that they try to play it up as this big reveal when I saw every second coming kills it.
Ben makes it to Macha’s cottage which is surrounded by stone fairies and has a thundercloud constantly raining over it. And this is where the Wizard of Oz parallels really hit home as the inside is almost exactly like Granny’s place, down to the tinny radio. Macha, in contrast to the legends, is warm and calm and welcomes Ben in. She says the stories tend to paint her in a bad light as all she wants to do is to take away others’ pain to make them feel better. She even does this to herself as we find out she’s stone from the waist down. Ben almost gives into her offer to erase his painful emotions but realizes that numbing them doesn’t help anyone and hurries upstairs to save Saorise. He finds her, gray-haired and half-stoned, along with Cú and hundreds of jars filled with Macha’s emotions. Since Macha won’t listen to reason as she tries to break down the door, Ben realizes that giving her back her feelings will. Ben tearfully apologizes to Saorise, admitting he was a bad brother and what happened to their mother wasn’t her fault, and this gives her the strength to play the shell and break open the jars. Macha is overcome with a wave of repressed emotions and she becomes what she always was, a frail old woman full of regret just trying to ease her family’s pain. To make up for what she’s done, she gives Cú Flash powers via twin dog spirits and he carries Ben and Saorise across the countryside all the way home in two minutes. It’s another magical moment in a movie that’s a whole series of them.
By the time they reach the lighthouse, Saorise’s hair has gone completely white. Ben finds Conor and asks him where Saorise’s coat is, but Conor, continuing his streak as Father of the Year, tosses them all in a rowboat so he can take Saorise to a hospital. Ben pushes back until he gets Conor to reveal he threw the coat in the ocean “like [he] should have years ago”. I’ll give Conor credit, his keeping Saorise away from her coat is doing her more harm than good, but at least he didn’t do it to Bronagh knowing full well his wife was a selkie. Ben, realizing what he must do to save his sister, takes the final step in his character arc by throwing off his life vest and diving into the sea. He finds the chest and key with the help of some seals and Con gets him back to the boat before he drowns. Ben gives Saorise back her coat and she finally says her first word – his name. How sweet, how WAIT JUST A DARN MINUTE!
Okay, this is probably just a huge coincidence since The Simpsons has been around for longer than I’ve been alive and they’ve covered just about every story and trope known to man, but as a longtime fan how could I NOT immediately jump to Lisa’s First Word whenever this pops up? In fact, this whole movie feels like a cinematic version of that episode, just with fewer jokes and better animation.
The seals and a transformed Saorise lead Ben and Con to the isle of Mac Lír where Ben teaches her their mother’s song in a manner deliberately reflecting how she taught him at the beginning of the film. Saorise sings, which not only heals her but…
Look, there are only so many synonyms for “wonder” in the English vocabulary. Just watch:
Saorise’s singing opens up the gates to the spirit world and every fantasy creature across Ireland goes through, where the first thing they’ll undoubtedly do is get a nice hot bath and massage at Yubaba’s place. Bronagh herself returns to tell Saorise she can either embrace her selkie side and join her in Tír na nÓg, or become fully mortal and stay with her family. Saorise chooses to stay because it’d be a pretty depressing movie if she abandoned her family, but at least Con and Ben get to have a proper goodbye with Bronagh and earn some much-needed closure. They return home to the lighthouse where Granny is waiting with the ferryman, the former having hurried back to the island during the night after once again sensing something was wrong. Everyone is happy and each comes away with a powerful lesson; Con learns to overcome his pain, Granny learns not to be so overbearing, Ben learns not to be a dick to his sister, and Saorise learns the most important thing of all:
So Song of the Sea…it’s all right. I wish I could say I liked it more, but what’s good about is still very good. I don’t think I need to say anymore regarding the artwork, but Bruno Coulais’ score knocks it out of the park again, the characters are great (even Ben comes around in the second half, which vastly improves the experience) and while I may have downplayed the final scene, it’s still very touching and gorgeously animated. Also, stay through the end credits for a cute epilogue and stunning production art. I may not love Song of the Sea as much as The Secret of Kells, though it’s still worth a watch every now and then.
But that begs the question, if Cartoon Saloon’s follow up film to The Secret of Kells was just okay, could they ever hope to surpass it, let alone rise to the same level of animation, emotion and layered storytelling as their first outing?
Thank you for reading and a special thank you to everyone who’s waited so patiently for this review! I’d like to give a shout-out to my generous patrons Amelia Jones and Gordhan Rajani for their support and to Gordhan for suggesting I finally review Song of the Sea. Patreon supporters can get such fun perks as sneak peeks of reviews, extra votes, movie requests and more!
That’s one review down, many more to go! Join me September when I review our next film, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, but first, it’s time to start a new old story…
Artwork by Charles Moss.