"Come away, O human child!
Hidden Gems: Song of the Sea
By Kyle Lee
August 23, 2018
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.”
-from “The Stolen Child” by William Butler Yeats
This quotation opens writer/director Tomm Moore’s 2014 film Song of the Sea, which is one of the most beautiful family movies ever made. Like his previous movie, 2009’s The Secret of Kells, it’s a visually gorgeous movie to look at, is steeped in Irish folklore, a terrific voice cast, and has wonderful music as well. Both were nominated for Oscars for Best Animated Film, and I think Song of the Sea should’ve won (Kells, sadly, was up against tougher competition). It’s gentle, not full of the manic energy many filmmakers think a children’s movie needs, and ultimately tackles the deep themes of grieving, sibling rivalry, family love, and much more wrapped up in a wonderful adventure tale with lovingly created 2D animation.
The story concerns Ben (David Rawle), a young boy who is antagonistic to his mute little sister Saoirse (pronounced Seer-sha). They live on the Irish coast, at a lighthouse with their father, Conor (Brendan Gleeson), who is distant but loving. The reason Ben is angry at his sister is because they lost their mother, Bronagh (Lisa Hannigan), at Saoirse’s birth. This is also the reason that Conor is so distant, still working through his grief at losing his beloved wife. On Saoirse’s 6th birthday, the family is visited by their Granny (Fionnula Flanagan), Conor’s mother. That night Ben scares Saoirse with the myth of Mac Lir and his mother Macha, the Owl Witch, who took his feelings and turned him into stone. Ben tells Saoirse that it’s just a story their mother would tell him, but Saoirse takes it much more to heart than Ben does.
Saoirse later finds a seashell horn that their mother had given to Ben, and by playing it, is led to find a small seal-skin coat in Conor’s closet. She puts it on, goes outside (hypnotically following magical lights that seem to live hidden in the air and answer the call from her horn whenever she plays it), and wades into the sea, surrounded by seals. She dives down into the water, finding out that she is a Selkie, a creature of Irish myth that can turn into a seal when in the water, and back into a human by shedding its skin on dry land.
After her magical swim, she’s found washed up on shore by her Granny, who then convinces Conor to let her take the children into the city to live with her. She says that the sea is dangerous and is no place for the children. So she drives them into Dublin, and away from the things they care about the most. Ben is separated from his huge sheepdog Cu, who Granny says is too big to live in the city. Saoirse is taken away from the ocean, and the seals that feel like a mysterious home to her now. Neither child will stand for this exile and immediately escape from Granny’s care into the night.
They quickly meet other magical creatures like the wacky, music loving fairies, who look a bit like what we think of trolls looking like. The fairies are looking for Saoirse, whom they believe will be able to sing her song, allowing them to escape the stone curses of Macha the Owl Witch, and return home to Tír na nÓg. They find that the fairy statues all around them and throughout the city aren’t statues, but fairies turned to stone by Macha and her owls, who took their feelings, just as she did to her son, Mac Lir. The fairies don’t so much help Ben and Saoirse (in fact they can’t even remember all the words to their songs, and Ben has to help them) as they do validate that this isn’t a dream and the magical world Bronagh used to tell them about is real. The songs she sang were fairy songs, and the stories she told were history, not fiction. Later, Ben will meet the Great Seanachai, who seems to hold a string to all of the lives and stories in the world, except the lines are the hairs of his endless beard. He’s a wise, kooky old man, who ends up being a bit of both guidance and comic relief.
What kept bringing me into this movie was the relative silence of it. I really just mean free of needless dialogue. It’s not silent, it’s gorgeously scored by Bruno Coulais, collaborating with Irish band Kila, with multiple songs sung by the achingly beautiful voice of Lisa Hannigan, who plays the mother, Bronagh. She’s long been one of my favorite musical artists, from her days singing with Damien Rice, to when she truly blossomed into something special with her own albums Sea Sew (2008), Passenger (2011), and At Swim (2016). She’s got the voice of an angel, and perfectly fits what Tomm Moore is doing here. Her music is gentle, but never boring. It’s fascinating and feels handmade (indeed she even did a run of hand sewn album art for her first record). The 2D animation here is so perfectly crafted, so wonderful in conjunction with the music and story. 2D gives the movie the same handmade feeling of Hannigan’s music, it’s almost like you could reach out and touch this storybook being told to us.
Although Moore’s The Secret of Kells seemed to get more passionate acclaim when it was released, I think Song of the Sea is a much better movie. It’s more assured in its storytelling, more focused (yet languidly unfolded for us, never hurried), and concludes in a way that is really satisfying even when it’s kind of unexpected. Moore himself even said he thought he lost the strand of story in Kells a bit towards the end, getting overwhelmed by the artwork (and that movie has astounding visuals for sure), things he felt he did much better on Song of the Sea. I agree with him.
I really do think this is one of the great family movies ever made. The visuals are amazing, the voice cast are all terrific, the story is like the great myths that Bronagh tells the children. Moore has said he was inspired to write this movie after talking to older Irish people on a vacation, and feeling like the old stories and myths were being lost on the next generations. The result is this truly wonderful movie that feels like a child’s storybook of myths, but one containing myths that many of us outside of Ireland might be hearing about for the first time.