(Original post date: 1/6/17)
This January 7th will mark the 40th birthday of the director of some of the finest animation in recent years. Tomm Moore is the co-founder of Cartoon Saloon, an animation T.V. and film studio stationed in Kilkanny, Ireland. Some works from Cartoon Saloon that Americans may be familiar with include the briefly-aired Cartoon Network series Skunk Fu!, and the more recent Netflix series for younger children, Puffin Rock. Of course, the piece that really brought Moore attention in this part of the world was his first film, the 2009 Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells. Those who follow this blog may recall that I talked about it back in November 2015; it is still one of my all-time favorite animated films—and I am still personally disappointed that it didn’t win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. But in any case, after seeing the artistic splendor that is The Secret of Kells, you can bet that I was most definitely psyched to see what Mr. Moore would come up with next.
Ten-year-old Ben lives in a small lighthouse in Ireland with his family, which is in ruins due to the disappearance of Bronagh (Bro-na), his mother. Heartbroken and depressed ever since, his father, Conor, now gains joy only from the presence of Ben’s mute younger sister, Saoirse (Sir-sha). This has severely strained his relationship with his son, who consequently not only hates his sister for the attention she receives, but blames her for Bronagh’s absence, as Saoirse was born that same fateful night. But then, an ancient shell flute which only Saoirse can play, and a pure white seal-skin coat that fits her perfectly, lead both siblings to an amazing discovery: Saoirse is, in fact, a selkie, a creature of Irish lore whose coat allows her to change from human to seal at will. This, however, causes her to be relentlessly pursued by the owls of the Celtic witch and goddess, Macha, who wants to turn her and all the remaining faeries of Ireland to stone by locking their feelings away inside her enchanted jars. Worse still, Saoirse falls deathly ill when she is separated from her magical coat, by Conor getting rid of it and by the strict Granny forcing the children to move with her to the city. Now, Ben must set aside his hatred and face his fears and his past in order to help his sister recover her coat and, from there, her long-suppressed voice, so that her singing can free the faeries from Macha’s spell and return them to their home beyond the sea.
Not unlike its predecessor, this film draws heavy influence from the mythology and ancient culture of Ireland. For those unfamiliar, one of its most famous and tragic stories involves a fisherman who comes across a selkie removing her seal-skin coat to enjoy a brief respite from the water in human form. Entranced by her beauty, the fisherman steals the coat and hides it, forcing the selkie to stay with him. They live peacefully and even raise a family together, until one day. Whether by the selkie herself or by one of her unsuspecting children, her coat is found where the fisherman had hidden it, whereby she promptly takes it in order to reclaim her seal form. Many versions even include a heart-rending conclusion of the selkie watching her human children from afar as they roam the beach, wondering in vain where their mother has gone.
In the Song of the Sea Artbook, Moore explains the importance of preserving the old stories in contemporary times:
“. . . A Seanachai [My note: Shan-a-kee] is a traditional storyteller in Ireland. He is someone who learns the stories from the old generations and passes them on to the next one. It’s a tradition that is fading here like it is everywhere. But one Seanachai that I grew up listening to on Irish TV is Eddie Lenihan. He continues the tradition to this day. He often mixes up his stories with characters from other legends or reinterprets the old stories with a modern twist. When I asked him about this he said something interesting to me; ‘that the stories will die if they become canonical and fossilized and sacred. We own them as much as the previous generations did and we can adapt them to our audiences to keep them alive.’”(p. 23)
The dignity and splendor of these stories are apparent even in scenes with no words. Easily one of the best of these is when Saoirse changes into a seal for the first time. As she is led to the water by faery lights, the other seals wait patiently for her. They greet her with some happy barks; she “barks” back as she dives down to join them. As the seals tenderly surround her, “singing” their own song, Saoirse is enveloped in a bright light, her transformation into a beautiful baby seal as graceful as her new form itself. Her white coat shining like a beacon in the dark water, the other seals follow as she swims through forests of swaying kelp and ornate coral, gliding fish and blooming jellyfish, a huge and majestic whale silently hovering above them like a benevolent guardian.
Now, it would be very easy to want to root for Saoirse and not her big brother in that clichéd “child/animal=good, older/human=bad” sort of way, and not only because he is the ordinary kid in the family. Ben appears at first to be little more than a bully, not to mention a buzzkill, as he is unable to understand at first why both humans and faeries think his sister is so special.
SPUD: (Enthusiastically to Saoirse.) Tell us your name, selkie. So we can sing of your adventure.
BEN: (Sighing in annoyance.) Her name’s Saoirse.
. . .
LUG: (Happily.) . . . Time for the selkie to sing her lovely song.
. . .
BEN: (As if it should be obvious.) She can’t sing. She can’t even talk.
But it is grief and not spite that fuels his anger and jealousy. Saoirse is the one that fills the void in Conor’s life, while Ben seems to have no such comfort to offer his father, which leaves him lonely as well since his own longing for the one he loves goes unrequited:
BEN: (Angrily as he aims his toy gun at Saoirse, who has her hands up.) Dad, [Saoirse] went into the water and nearly got me killed! . . . (Conor doesn’t respond.) Dad!
CONOR: (Finally stirs from his sad reverie.) What? Are you playing cops ‘n’ robbers?
BEN: Are you going to give out to her?
CONOR: (Smiling as Saoirse comes into his outstretched arms.) Ah! Here’s the birthday girl. (Lifts her up.) Come up here to me.
. . .
BEN: (Softly and sadly calling after Conor, who completely ignores him.) Dad?
As a matter of fact, loss is the underlying theme that gives Song of the Sea its poignancy: the way one does or does not accept it, and the devestating effects the latter can have on one's relationships and future.
In the artbook’s foreword, Moore had this to say on the subject:
“. . . ‘These stories arose at a time when there was much more of a connection to the environment. There wasn’t the concept of taming nature we have today; people lived within it, and that life must have been brutal. When I re-read the stories, I realized they were metaphors for death or dealing with loss: The wife that disappears after seven years to go back to the sea and become a seal. I wanted the main character in the film involved in that story.’” (p. 8)
Going off of this, there is one specific creative choice that is as symbolically brilliant as it is masterfully executed: many of the actors provide voices for both a human and a faery character which parallel each other in appearance and temperament and provide a foil for one another. This serves to make their influence on Ben’s journey and personal growth all the more meaningful.
The local ship driver, Ferry Dan, and the Great Seanachai, a wizened faery whose strands of hair each contain a story, are voiced by Jon Kenny. Both are friendly, lively, and more than a bit eccentric, but they act as grandfatherly figures to the children, the former siding with Ben against the uptight Granny as the latter does against the ominous Macha. (Quick side note, listen to the way Ferry Dan calls Granny “old witch” behind her back: doesn’t it sound like “owl witch” due to his thick Irish accent? Foreshadowing, anyone?)
FERRY DAN: (To Ben.) What’s the matter with you, Ben?
BEN: (Sobbing miserably.) Granny wouldn’t let Cú [the family’s sheepdog] come with us.
FERRY DAN: (Frowning in sympathy.) Ah, the old witch.
[. . .]
BEN: What’s wrong?
GREAT SEANACHAI: (With great concern.) Macha has [Saoirse] now. She’ll be turned to stone soon, no doubt.
. . .
(Giving Ben a strand of his hair to guide him.) Macha has lost all hope. And she will try and make you lose hope, too.
Brendan Gleeson (who had previously played Abbot Cellach in Kells) voices Conor and Mac Lir, both of whom have suffered an agonizing blow to their hearts. Mac Lir cried so hard that his tears threatened to flood the world until he was turned into a mountain by Macha. Conor screamed Bronagh’s name as he raced after her into the sea, but to not avail; now his sorrow entraps him in a figurative but no less crippling “stone” prison.
Which brings me to perhaps the most significant pair, Granny and Macha, both played by Fionnula Flanagan. Their intentions, while noble, are severely misguided: they believe that the best way to deal with inner pain is to not face that pain at all. Granny constantly complains about how unsavory the lighthouse is. But her opinion stems not so much from her being a stuffy old woman as her acute awareness that the island is a continual reminder to her son of the night he lost the one he cared for most; plus, despite Ben’s fierce protests, she takes him and Soairse away to the city, prioritizing their physical safety above their childhood happiness.
GRANNY: (To Conor.) You’re better off not thinking about that night, you know.
[. . .]
(Firmly to Ben as he is crying softly in the backseat of her car.) Ben, there will be no tears in this car, or in my house.
Similarly, Macha feels that taking away her own son’s feelings is preferable to seeing him grieve, even if it means rendering him a stone monolith. Now, she has become obsessed with doing the same to others, and even to herself, believing that she is healing when, in fact, she is all but killing.
MACHA: (In a comforting tone.) I see it, Ben, your pain. You’re so full of emotions. (Brings Ben closer to her.) I can see them in your face. Nasty, terrible things. . . . Now, if someone said that they could take that pain away, would you let them?
BEN: (Pauses as he considers.) I suppose.
MACHA: (Reasonably.) That’s all I do, Ben. I take away the pain.
Though all of the characters all often hinder each other, they are far from being evil. Here is an honest portrait of real, flawed people reacting to real, flawed life, utilizing supernatural settings as both a backdrop and a means for encouraging nostalgia and self-exploration.
BEN: (To a sick half-stone Saoirse as they are trapped by Macha and her owls.) It’s okay, Saoirse. We don’t have much time. I shouldn’t have been so mean to you. It’s not your fault, it never was. (Saoirse wheezes painfully.) I should have been a better brother to you. I’m sorry.
In a time when many animated children’s films are all about wacky characters, loud music, flashy colors, and pop culture/adult jokes, I find this is very refreshing. It plays out very much like a cinematic lullaby: vivid without being gaudy, fun without being obnoxious, and melancholy without being depressing. Song of the Sea has a timelessness that is sure to resonate with a deep part of ourselves even in the contemporary world, just as both nature and the best bedtime stories have done for centuries.
Credits: All images, audio, and links belong to their respective owners; no copyright infringement is intended.
Main Theme (Radio):
”Mono No Aware (Opening)” – Amethystium
Main Theme (Online):
“The Call” – Briand Morrison and Roxann Berglund
All other music and sound clips are from Song of the Sea (produced by Cartoon Saloon; distributed by StudioCanal).
“Amhrán Na Farraige (Performed by Lisa Hannigan)”
“Dance With the Fish” (Film Version)
“Song of the Sea (Lullaby)" (Performed by Nolwenn Leroy)
Watch the original preview and episode videos here!
Listen to the episode here!
Song of the Sea on Wikipedia
Tomm Moore on Wikipedia
Cartoon Saloon on Wikipedia
Cartoon Saloon's Official Website
Song of the Sea on Cartoon Saloon
Song of the Sea on IMDb
Song of the Sea on Rotten Tomatoes
Song of the Sea on Common Sense Media
Song of the Sea on tvtropes
Buy Song of the Sea on Amazon
Buy Song of the Sea at Barnes & Noble
Buy Song of the Sea on eBay
Buy the Song of the Sea Art Book on Amazon
Buy the Song of the Sea Art Book at Stuart Ng Books
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