Song of the Sea (Director: Tomm Moore): As a huge fan of Tomm Moore’s previous film, The Secret of Kells, I was eagerly looking forward to seeing Song of the Sea. And I do mean seeing, since Moore’s work as an animator is grounded in a lush yet spare drawing style that is simply gorgeous to look at. And true to form, every frame of the new film is as visually stunning as a painting. What I wasn’t prepared for was how much of an emotional wallop the film packs.
Though I’m a true lover of cinema, there are times when I’m grateful that I don’t have to make my living writing about films. This is definitely one of those times. Instead of bashing out my 300 words trying to slot this into some categories (animation, family films) and perhaps musing about its potential box office numbers before moving on the next week to whatever the media firehose belches forth, I can take my time a little. I can write about this film simply because it matters to me, and I can write about it in whatever way that I can express that.
I’ll begin by pointing out that Moore and his production company, Cartoon Saloon, have been working on Song of the Sea for more than five years, on a budget a fraction of what a company like Pixar would have available. Without disparaging any other animated feature films out there, this certainly speaks to the level of craft and love for the medium that Moore and his colleagues share. Operating outside of the Hollywood industry, Cartoon Saloon is more like an Irish version of the late, great Studio Ghibli.
The film begins with a few lines from W.B. Yeats’ “The Stolen Child,” a poem which has particular meaning for me, a transplanted Irishman. I chose it to be a part of my father’s memorial service a few years ago, and I’ve always found The Waterboys’ song based on it to be incredibly moving. It’s the story of a child being lured away from “a world full of weeping” by faeries.
It’s wonderful to see Moore return to the Irish mythology which The Secret of Kells brought to life so memorably. This time it’s a story about selkies, creatures who exist as seals in the water but as humans on dry land. Sometimes they take human spouses, but these unions often end tragically when the selkies return to their true home, the sea.
On the night that young Saoirse is born, her mother Bronach disappears, leaving husband Conor the lighthouse keeper heartbroken and son Ben bitter and angry at his baby sister. As she grows up, she remains mute and Ben continues to reject her. One night she discovers a special coat and wades into the sea where she is transformed into a seal and swims happily with a group of her own kind. But when her visiting grandmother finds her washed up on shore, she takes both Saoirse and Ben to live in the city, away from the dangers of the sea and their distracted father.
Being away from the sea and her special coat weakens Saoirse and Ben begins to show more sympathy for her. As well, he quickly discovers that all of the stories about faeries and witches that his mother told him before she disappeared are true. Soon the siblings are caught up in a life and death struggle to save Saoirse’s life and to restore a whole population of faery creatures who have been turned to stone by the witch Macha.
The emotional core of the film is literally about having an emotional core. The “villain” (who is really just unable to cope with her own pain) tries to lure Ben by asking him to forget his pain and bottle up (again, quite literally) his feelings in jars. But this well-meaning coping strategy has turned all of the faeries into stone, including Macha’s beloved son, the giant Mac Lir. In her misguided desire to rescue him from heartbreak, Macha instead stole her own son’s lifeblood. There’s a very clever pairing of human and faery characters in the story as well, which makes the mythical stories much more immediate.
The message of feeling your feelings, even when they’re painful, was not lost on me. I’ve gone through more than my fair share of personal tragedies this year. I cry much more easily now. I spent more than half of the film a quivering, sniffling wreck, and it felt wonderful. Although this is a film that deserves a huge audience, in many ways it felt like Tomm Moore made it just for me. And that is the highest praise I can bestow.