Mon Ami ARTICHOKE,
It is, I admit, a bit late to be singing the praises of Song of the Sea (… get it). Since its release in December of 2014, it has earned a 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, an Academy Award Nomination, and the enthusiastic applause of, by all appearances, everyone who’s seen it. And it earned it. It’s simply one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen, animated or otherwise, and an incredible example of the extraordinary depths and nuances animation is capable of.
Song of the Sea has been called the spiritual successor to The Secret of Kells, and it is easy to immediately see the familial resemblance between the two films. Both movies were directed by Tomm Moore for Cartoon Saloon; as it turns, out, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea are the only two feature films Tomm Moore has under his belt, and both have a well-deserved Academy Award Nomination for Best Animated Film. That’s a short resume but a hell of a batting record for Mr. Moore. It’s tempting, for me, to see Moore and Cartoon Saloon as Ireland’s answer to Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli; I am doubtful about Cartoon Saloon but hopeful about Tomm Moore. Time will tell.
Spoilers beyond this point, because if we’re going to talk about a movie, we’re going to talk about the ending.
Song of the Sea is the retelling of the Celtic myth of the selkie. The story begins with the birth of Saoirse, whose mother Bronagh disappears the night of her birth and whose elder brother, Ben, resents her and blames her for that disappearance. Their father, Conor, is a lighthouse keeper on an isolated island, and still depressed after Bronagh’s disappearance. Over the course of the story, Saoirse discovers she is a selkie, shortly before the children’s grandmother, who believes the lighthouse is no place to raise children, transports them to the city. The two children run away from home, various adventures ensue, and they get home with Saoirse barely alive, just in time for her to fulfill her destiny as a selkie (if you will) by singing the selkie song, and then promptly lose her magical powers as magic exits the world. It should be mentioned that while Saoirse is the main character, her brother Ben is the protagonist, and it’s through his eyes that we see the story.
The Secret of Roan Inish
I think the biggest surprise of Song of the Sea for me was the discovery that there are other people in the world who apparently have seen The Secret of Roan Inish. Roan Inish is an Irish film about a ten-year-old girl who goes to live with her grandparents on a remote island in Ireland, and along the way, discovers her selkie heritage. There are so many similarities between the two movies that Song of the Sea is almost the animated remake of Roan Inish. Both primarily center around the relationship between an older, blond, ten-year-old sibling (Fiona of Roan Inish and Ben of Song) and their younger, nonverbal, semi-feral, dark-haired and dark-eyed, selkie and otherworldly sibling (Jamie of Roan Inish and Saoirse of Song). Both older siblings have to in some way rescue their younger sibling. Both feature distant, possibly alcoholic fathers and vanished or deceased mothers; both include the children being sent to live with grandparents (though in Roan Inish, this is a good thing, as Fiona is sent to the sea, while in Song, this is a bad thing, as Ben and Saoirse are sent to the city). Both include selkie foremothers, and the difficulties of an integrated selkie-human family, and both feature a strong theme of the near-dissolution of the family following the mother’s death or disappearance (which is, more generally, a theme in Western literature, especially children’s literature– see the earlier letter on The Secret Garden).
Both movies are primarily, at heart, about Ireland, through the use of Irish folklore, Irish language and song, and Irish values, especially those values of family, storytelling, and the prioritization of nature and a simple life over the industrial city and confangled modernity. Roan Inish came out in 1994, but takes place sometime in the past (the 1950s?), while Song of the Sea, which came out twenty years later in 2014, takes place in 1987. Both movies are primarily concerned with looking into the past; but while Roan Inish’s solution to this nostalgia is, ultimately, to go into past and live as if the future isn’t going to happen, Song of the Sea is more about peacefully letting go of the past presumably in order to build a future.
I could make this entire letter about a comparison between Roan Inish and Song of the Sea– such is the level of influence Roan Inish clearly had on the filmmakers. The main thing I want to say is that Song of the Sea is by far the superior film– but, that’s not necessarily to Roan Inish’s discredit. Quite a few of the mutual objectives of both films, such as depicting folklore, setting up a specific atmosphere, and relying on a child main character (and, for better or worse, the child actor or actress), are all items that are simply better suited to animation, especially when your live action film was made in 1993 with what I assume was a budget of about ten dollars.
Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli
There were two major homages to Miyazaki’s films in Song of the Sea;
First, an homage to My Neighbor Totoro, in the scene where Ben and Saoirse take shelter from the rain in the shrine surrounding the holy well, which is strikingly close to the scene wherein Satsuki and Mei take shelter from the rain in a neighborhood shrine.
And secondly, in the character of Macha, the Owl Witch, who is strikingly similar to Yubaba of Spirited Away, an elderly, avian witch whose desire to protect her son from all the harm of the world has lead to some decidedly questionable actions. Like Yubaba, Macha isn’t a straight antagonist– she’s more misguided than bad– but she does serve as both the main obstacle, and, like Zeniba, Yubaba’s twin of Spirited Away, the main instigator of the solution as to how to get around those obstacles.
The Little Mermaid
One of the first things we learn about Saoirse is that she’s almost six years old, and she hasn’t yet learned to speak. Because this is fiction, her speechlessness is a matter of “the doctors say she’ll learn in her own time,” as opposed to “the doctors say this is indicative of developmental disabilities,” but whatever. Because of this, I was expecting more in the way of homage or parallels to The Little Mermaid, but except for Saoirse’s voicelessness, there isn’t much. And, you could explain that voicelessness as a connection to Jamie, Saoirse’s Secret of Roan Inish counterpart, who is also mute (because he’s, like, three, and he’s a feral selkie child who’s been raised by the seals). And, Studio Ghibli also did their own version of The Little Mermaid with the less than stellar Ponyo, which similarly focuses on the relationship between a boy and a girl– and in that version, Ponyo is, while not particularly eloquent in her speech, certainly not without speech. So while The Little Mermaid is, I would say, a thematic ancestor to Song of the Sea, it’s not quite as direct an influence as Roan Inish or Miyazaki.
While I do think Song of the Sea is God’s gift to animation, I’m not wild about the storytelling choice to make Saoirse mute. I understand the impetus– so as to make it all the more powerful when she does speak, which culminates in her singing her song, and to make her even more helpless in the face of Ben’s antipathy. And, it should be said, that even with nothing more than heavy breathing and facial expressions, Saoirse is easily the most charming character of any of them. However, even for a six-year-old, Saoirse is alarmingly lacking in agency, with a very noteworthy exception in the moment when she takes the shell and finds her coat, so as to go for a midnight swim. She spends a considerable amount of the story as a glorified McGuffin, dragged about half of Ireland on a leash by her brother Ben, and fought over between various fairy beings. Even when she does sing her song at the end, it’s at her mother’s prompting. She does, finally, make the choice to stay in the human world rather than follow her mother into the (fairy world? underworld? death? It’s not clear, but to be fair, the story is probably better for that particular ambiguity), but her voicelessness gives us so little insight into her mind that the choice doesn’t really feel like it means anything; of course she stays with her father and brother, because hell, why not?
This is the main change I would make to Song of the Sea; rather than an older brother’s story of learning to love his baby sister, I would rather have seen Saoirse’s story about learning she’s a selkie, and what does that mean? Do you want a life in some unknown fairyland with your dead(ish?) mother? Or do you stay with your life in the not-entirely-kind human world, because you love your decidedly awful older brother and your loving-but-distant father? It’s Saoirse’s story– let her tell us the story.
Artichoke, I think your baby cousins would like this one. Also, have them watch The Secret of Roan Inish, and then compare and contrast. Get them started on film and story analysis early, is what I’m saying, and let me know how it goes.