In times of chaos, uncertainty and conflict, children’s movies maintain an attractive simplicity in their lessons and morals: kindness, responsibility, harmony, getting along… And while these ideal visions with clean, wholesome endings are often too simple to rely on for our worldviews, they remain welcome reminders of our shared humanity and the interconnectedness of our stories. Some messages bear repeating and emphasizing for children and adults alike.
As we continue to bear the burden of isolation during the pandemic and to fight the inequalities and divisiveness amidst the current unrest, our shared story is more important than ever—and Song of the Sea reminds us that there is a common story, full of individual lives with different experiences and perspectives, but nonetheless all intertwined in ways we may not even recognize.
Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon’s 2014 Oscar-nominated film Song of the Sea (dir. Tomm Moore, currently streaming on Netflix) embodies the kinds of fable-like morals that appear in many similar children’s films, but finds its niche in using Irish folklore and breathtaking, hand-drawn scenery. Going beyond typical platitudes about kindness or respect, the characters of this film show the interconnectedness of the world and the importance of working to understand and heed the experiences of those around us.
Song of the Sea centers on Ben, a young boy who lives on an island with his father Conor, a lighthouse keeper, and his pregnant mother Bronagh. After Bronagh gives birth, she disappears and leaves Ben’s new sister Saoirse behind. Ben develops a strained relationship with his sister, which becomes worse when he and his sister are moved into the city by their concerned, controlling Granny. As Ben tries to return home, Saoirse tags along on what quickly becomes a magical adventure, as she is revealed to be a selkie—a mythic being with a magical singing voice who can transform into a seal. The magical adventure that follows features a malevolent owl witch named Macha, a trio of musical Na Daoine Sídhe (Irish fairies) and fanciful, family-friendly fantasy whose lessons and intricate aesthetic make it a relevant watch for all.
Song of the Sea is an adorable movie, in terms of both its aesthetic design and its narrative developments. Tomm Moore’s signature style of animation beautifully uses flattened spaces and simple curves and shapes to depict a stunning world filled with whimsy, perhaps inspired by the looping designs and illustrations in Gaelic art. The fact that the film is hand-drawn, too, sets it apart from its computer-animated counterparts.
The magic-filled narrative of fairies and owl witches is also quite cute, even flavoring its ostensibly scarier moments with a dash of comedy or a pinch of whimsy. The villainous Macha, for instance, sends her owls to steal other folkloric beings’ emotions, resulting in beautiful stone figures being left behind and the creation of small bottles with teensy weather phenomena—literal bottled-up emotions. And, of course, there is no shortage of whimsical musical numbers, in both Gaelic and English, making the overwhelming grandeur and intricacy just that much more full.
The messages that this film relays to children (and adults, as we will see) are also well-woven into the fabric of the narrative and visuals of the film. Ben learns to let go of his resentment towards Saoirse with regard to Bronagh’s disappearance, for instance, helping both her and the greater good of the magical creature citizenry. Using Irish folklore as a starting point for the story, the narrative takes on a mythic quality, using a simple story to relate collective truths about humanity.
As mentioned, the film’s narrative and visuals make grand use of simplicity. But if you’re an adult watching for innovative or surprising narrative, you’ll be sorely disappointed by a plot that is straightforward and somewhat predictable in the children’s magical adventure genre. The story of Ben and Saoirse is reminiscent of similar stories of magical youths going on grand adventures that reflect their personal struggles in their “normal” lives. But, again, folklore is lore for a reason; it often seems to be the universal stories that speak the most toward our shared experiences.
Being linked to the tradition of storytelling, there is a lot of exposition in this film, as well. Whether this feels like a loving homage to the spirit of the oral tradition, an egregious case of “telling over showing,” or something in between may depend on each viewer’s own experience. That said, while you will see many magical creatures and happenings in this movie, you should also be prepared to hear about them and their stories because, well, what would an intertwined tapestry be without the individual threads?
It can be easy for the messages of kindness a film like this embodies to be reduced to meaningless platitudes. Especially in a world wrought with divisiveness over everything from politics to science, such messages of kindness may seem nebulous and broad. And, yes, when commercials for everything from fast food to cars incessantly repeat how “now, more than ever,” we need to stick together, it can get old fast. But while some films can pretty closely reflect situations as specific as global pandemic (like the zombie outbreak in Train to Busan), the humanity we find in this simply-themed yet intricately expressed animation brings us both a well-timed fresh breath and a call for reflection on our shared humanity.
One pivotal moment in the siblings’ journey comes when Ben encounters The Great Seanchaí, an old man with impossibly long hair, each strand containing one person’s life memories. These hairs are so long that they form caverns and tunnels, tangling in and out of each other, that Ben traverses when he is separated from his sister. As Ben floats through the midnight-blue darkness, illuminated with fairy lights, he traverses swirl after swirl, tangle after tangle. The Great Seanchaí tells Ben how interconnected everyone and everything is through the intersections of their stories (seanchaí are Irish storytellers, after all).
This image of the interconnectedness is beautiful, even inspiring. But the interconnectedness is all in hindsight; each person’s story—the thin, linear strand of their memories—is tied up and intersecting in memory. And what’s incredible is that Ben travels through them, the memories—the tangles, the intersections, the straight and swirled paths alike—framing his (and our) present. This experience influences his worldview and his choices-to-come and, if the film is successful, influences ours, too.
So much of recent crisis emphasizes how our contact with one another can negatively impact each others’ lives: spreading sickness or violence. But Song of the Sea encourages us to be a positive influence in someone else’s story. Even simple things like wearing a mask or standing in solidarity creates an opportunity for the entanglement of your story with another’s to be positive.
Throughout the film, the magic and surrealness of scenes like these soar when the children are in forests and nature, but wane when in crowded, urban centers. In the city, the three fairies Ben and Saoirse meet are confined to a small wooded area at the center of a traffic circle. The magic and whimsy of the natural world, then, seem to be stifled when under manmade infrastructure. That is not to say that the film has a particularly strong message of environmentalism (although the “awww”-inducing animals that populate the film alone make a compelling argument). The beautiful representations of shoreside vistas and mysterious forests, however, remind us that the beautiful and sometimes mysterious parts of humanity aren’t always found in manmade pursuits—be it fame, money, or otherwise—but rather in the more elemental, original relationships we find in folklore like this.
So, while lessons of living in harmony or unity may be too idealistic or perhaps just plain annoying after your child requests to watch the same movie again, Song of the Sea makes the simple new again, expresses the uncomplicated and unpretentious with intricacy and beauty…and is perhaps just what we need at a moment like this.