Introduction: I love animated movies, but sometimes I tire of the typical CGI-driven flicks. For me, nothing beats a good, old fashioned 2D animated movie provided (a). it doesn’t look like it was produced on a shoestring budget and (b). it’s not solely for kids. I first became aware of this Irish film while checking out its trailer purely by accident, and I was dazzled by the lovely colors and simple design. So I decided to give it a go – but does this film truly deserve an ocean of praise? Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.
The Story: [from Wikipedia]: Song of the Sea follows the story of a 10-year-old Irish boy named Ben (David Rawle) who discovers that his mute sister Saoirse, whom he blames for the apparent death of his mother, is a selkie who has to free faerie creatures from the Celtic goddess Macha.
My Take: If the plot description above seems a bit brief, that’s because the story itself is rather basic. In fact, everything about Song of the Sea is simplistic but that’s where it’s beauty lies. Be forewarned: if you’re looking for an animated movie with a story showcasing bright, flashy, colorful animation and full of relentless jokes, pop culture references, and trailer fodder moments, Song of the Sea is decidedly not that kind of movie.
What deserves first mention is the animation, which is absolutely gorgeous. The color scheme is tastefully muted, avoiding garish colors, so it looks like a painting, possessing depth, organic shades, and clean lines. This film is a treat for the eyes as it spends time introducing you to its environments, from forested landscapes, to urban sprawl, to the open sea. It’s breathtaking in its design, and you can practically feel the grass tickle your feet, savor the rain as it pelts your face, and bask in the sunshine. Nothing here is frantically paced or lazily linear as everything has an easy, natural flow. I appreciated this aspect of the animation’s quality as it gives your eyes time to take it all in rather than jump from scene to scene. There are many moments where the landscape becomes the star so it feels like a real environment, not merely pretty scenery. (Though, for the record, it is very pretty!) In the same way, the characters are drawn in a slight cartoon-like fashion yet these 2D figures act like real people and you can feel their emotions every step of the way.
The story itself is slow-paced but has a natural, gentle rhythm to it and is never sluggish. Here, we’re introduced to a small family consisting of Conor, a lighthouse keeper; his children, Ben and Saoirse (pronounced sear-sha); and their dog, Cu. They all live at the lighthouse but all is not right with their world. Years earlier, Conor’s wife and Ben and Saoirse’s mother presumably passed away after giving birth to Saoirse, and her presence is sorely missed. Yet each one grieves in his or her own way: Conor drowns his sorrows at a local pub, Ben remembers his mother through the stories and songs she told, and Saoirse is mute despite going on six years of age.
Yet the sea calls to her and it’s not long until the movie reveals her true identity (so this isn’t a spoiler). Saoirse is a selkie, a being (found in Irish, Scottish, and Faroese folklore) who assumes the form of a seal in the water but sheds this skin or coat and becomes human on land. After her identity is revealed, her emotionally torn and perplexed father believes it’s time his children lived as far from the sea as possible, so they reluctantly move in with their old fashioned grandmother. However, this is just the beginning of Ben and Saoirse’s adventures as they learn that all of the faerie stories they have heard are true, and Saoirse is the key to the faerie people’s salvation.
Again, the story itself, at least in principle, is fairly straightforward; however, I think it serves its characters well. There are no twists or turns to the plot and some aspects are slightly predictable. But I didn’t mind this as the movie knows when to raise the stakes and build tension, especially in its second and third acts. There were moments when I was on edge, wondering what was going to be Saoirse’s fate and I was worried for her. At other times, I was deeply touched by the way the movie handles some delicate themes. Song of the Sea is ingenious in its restraint because, with such a simple premise, it would have been easy to go overkill on another element, such as trying to hammer home a particular message or become kooky. Instead, it knows when to be charming but never becomes a fluffy, whimsical romp. It knows when to be light-hearted but avoids being a comedy. It knows when to be dramatic but it never takes itself too seriously. And it knows when to deliver introspective moments but never becomes syrupy or saccharine.
Another intriguing aspect to the story’s delivery is that there isn’t that much dialogue. It’s not that Song of the Sea is a quasi-silent movie or a minimalist film. Instead, its narrative backbone is the characters’ emotions, so many scenes rely on characters’ ability to “act” through body language and interactions with their environment and others. There are no grandiose speeches, maniacal tirades, or protracted infodumps. Instead, characters say only what’s necessary and it works brilliantly as not a single word is misspoken or underused. Essentially, everything here feels essential to the story rather than tacked on for the sake of running time.
The characters are also fleshed out and feel like real people. Naturally, the shining stars of the film are Ben and Saoirse, and, considering the leads are children, they carry the weight of the film well. Neither of them are grossly juvenile nor do they act like adults trapped in children’s bodies. We see them learn and mature, especially Ben. At first, Ben harbors a strong dislike towards Saoirse, essentially blaming her for the loss of his mother. Sometimes he’s stubborn and selfish, but he doesn’t stay this way. Ben eventually rises to the challenge and strives to protect his sister, no matter the cost. In the same way, Saoirse is adorable but she’s more than just a cute face. Deep down, she knows her true identity and she’s determined to accept it. She’s courageous, kind, and sweet though she, too, can be stubborn and sometimes bucks against her older brother’s leading. But, again, she is a child and she learns along the way. The dynamic between Ben and Saoirse feels very organic, as if they were a real-life brother and sister pairing. I loved every moment they were on screen together and they make a great team.
I also thought the mythology in this film was well done. For me, basing a story off of folklore or a myth comes with a few issues. The first is that it can be tempting to downplay it, causing the mythology to become so buried beneath a loose adaption that it’s nearly unrecognizable (such as the depiction of vampires in the Twilight franchise). The second issue is that the myth element is modernized so it displays sentiments and symbols reflecting or parodying popular culture (much like the Shrek films [though I love Shrek and Shrek 2]). Thankfully, Song of the Sea takes neither track when it comes to its mythology and, instead, presents a good balance. Here, selkies are depicted as human beings who feel a call to the sea. They don a special coat that enables them to transform into a seal when they enter the water, and they are considered akin to the faerie folk. But their mythological nature is never downplayed or modernized.
Interestingly enough, selkie myths vary greatly when it comes to their origins. Some legends claim they are fallen angels doomed to live in animal form until the Day of Judgment, others assert selkies assume an aquatic form due to an accident or other misfortune, and yet other variations claim selkies are the souls of downed persons. While Song of the Sea never tries to pin down any one of those as the selkie’s true origin, it does make it clear that a selkie belongs to the faerie people and, as such, is a magical, powerful being. As evidenced in the film, Saoirse’s power of song has the ability to set certain forces free, and it’s this gift that becomes the crux of the story. Concerning the treatment of the selkie myth itself, I thought the film did a wonderful job. Even if one is unfamiliar with selkie folklore, the film presents enough details (and, mercifully, not through infodumps) that it’s easy to grasp and doesn’t feel unauthentic; thus, the treatment of myth in this film is refreshing and remains classical while not becoming stale.
Another element that makes this film feel true to its Celtic background is its music. The chief thematic piece is Amhrán na farra and it is a gorgeous piece of music even if one doesn’t speak or understand Gaelic (for the record, I do not). But the power behind the song, judging by how it’s used in the film, is so keenly felt that it isn’t necessary to know a translation. The rest of the soundtrack is quiet, subtle, and beautiful, making excellent use of traditional Celtic instruments and delivering a signature cultural sound. Nothing here screams modern pop music and bombastic orchestras are never utilized. Instead, there is a lullaby quality to the soundtrack: it’s hushed and gentle yet adds depth and culture to its story, environment, and characters. Without a doubt, this is an Irish film and it shows respect for its home culture by being proud of its roots.
Thematically, Song of the Sea tackles the topics of family, grief, and the validity of emotions. First, we see that, despite their flaws, Ben and Saoirse have a stable home with two genuinely caring adults. Conor might be lost in his grief but he’s not checked out of his children’s lives. In the same way, Ben and Saoirse’s grandmother, though a stickler at times, it still a kind woman who worries about her grandchildren and her son, especially as he allows his grief to consume him. Thankfully, neither adult character is depicted as stupid or a comic foil, which I appreciated. In the same way, Ben and Saoirse’s relationship is realistic as, at times, Ben can be mean towards his sister but never cruel. However, when danger comes, both of them look out for each other and Ben becomes a brave, admirable brother.
Concerning grief, the film shows rather than tells. Conor and Ben are two characters through whom this theme is explored but it’s never through insipid exposition. Instead, their pain bleeds through as Conor does his best to cope with the loss of his wife, and Ben strives to keep his mother’s memory alive by remembering the stories and songs she shared with him as a boy. There are times when the film can feel a bit melancholy in this regard but it never stays that way nor is it emotionally exploitative. Instead, it paints two portraits of grief, then allows the story and character development to assume a natural course of events.
In the same way, the film affirms the validity of emotions yet, at the same time, warns against allowing them to dictate our actions. In time, we learn that one character has been stealing emotions from others because this person doesn’t want to feel sadness or grief. But what the character offers instead is a cold comfort. I can’t go into too much detail as this plot point counts as a spoiler, but I can say that this character gets confronted by another character who asserts that all emotions and memories have their place as even seemingly negative feelings can result in positive life changes. This reminded me very much of how Sorrow is deemed to have value in the Pixar movie Inside Out, so it’s refreshing to see this kind of affirming message about emotions in a movie for children who are just beginning to discover what their feelings mean and how to relate to and interpret them.
In the end, I loved Song of the Sea as it’s a true masterpiece! The story is simple but executed well with elegantly-timed tension. The characters are a delight and feel like real people. The animation and music are sublime, and the incorporation of Celtic folklore feels very natural. This is one film that could easily be appreciated as a work of art as well as a good story. It’s decidedly different from most animated fare these days, and it’s clear its creators put their hearts into it as it’s elevated from being just another animated movie thanks to its lullaby-like quality: it’s gentle, quiet, touching, simple, and soothing. And in this way, Song of the Sea becomes pure cinematic art.
Content Breakdown: Song of the Sea was given a PG rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – Essentially none, save for a few instances where characters under stress take God’s name in vain and use other mild religious exclamations. Elsewhere, a faerie character has a “keep out” sign painted on the door to its home, including the words “Feic Off.”
Violence – None. Characters endure perilous situations at times – even facing death – and one character is presumed to have died, but nothing ever becomes violent. Elsewhere, a witch threatens the protagonists, but there are no outright acts of violence. It’s also worth noting that while Cu often finds himself in perilous situations, he is never harmed and does not die (as some viewers may be concerned over the fate of an animal character in a children’s movie).
Sexual Material – None.
Thematic Content – Grief is clearly displayed but not openly talked about in the film. Several characters deal with losing a loved one in their own personal ways and another character goes to great lengths to ensure that no one ever has to feel sadness. While this isn’t a dark movie, it can wax melancholy at times though such moments serve as either backstory or catalysts for characters’ actions.
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Song of the Sea stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Recommended, with a brief caution that perhaps only the very youngest of viewers might be scared by the movie’s lead villain, who is a witch.
Older Children & Teens – Recommended, especially as a break from standard animated fare. Nothing here screams pop culture but, instead, remains respective of its home culture. Younger audiences might enjoy it for these aspects, too, along with its simple premise and gorgeous animation.
Young Adults & Adults – Recommended to anyone who appreciates a good story and film as art. This is one animated film that, while focusing on child characters, never feels juvenile but injects mature emotion into its creation.
Overall, Song of the Sea is gorgeous from start to finish. It’s not a complicated, convoluted story with flashy visuals, but it’s in these deprivations where it shines. From breathtaking animation, to realistic characters, to organic emotion, this film deserves to be seen by anyone who has a deep appreciation for such things or who has grown tired of the typical animated movie CGI-fest. Rather than serve as a see-it-and-forget-it type of flick, Song of the Sea is a moving, lyrical, emotional piece that deserves to be savored and remembered by anyone who wishes to witness its artful tale.