Animator Tomm Moore’s vision is the vision of old Irish folktales, where saints and heroes, fairies and angels, monsters and missionaries comingle in stories and legend. His first film, The Secret of Kells, is a fanciful and wondrous imagining of the creation of the Book of Kells. His second, Song of the Sea, is inspired by legends of the selkies: mythological creatures who can change from seal to human and back again by slipping in and out of a seal skin.
While on the surface Song of the Sea is about Irish mythology, the themes are deeper and more universal. Like the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, Moore is interested in using traditional folklore as the palette with which to draw a portrait of distinctly human struggles. Though it contains echoes of The Wizard of Oz, The Secret of Roan Inish, and Ponyo, Song of the Sea is something truly different.
Using the same type of flat (but lush) storybook character design and background painting as Kells, Song of the Sea tells the story of young Ben and his little sister Saoirse (pronounced Seer-sheh). When Ben was a toddler, his mother disappeared into the sea beyond the lighthouse his father keeps on their island home, leaving behind a baby wrapped in a seal skin. Ben’s father, Conor, has refused to talk much about the event, saving his grief for the times he is alone. Saoirse is now six and is still unable to talk, much to Ben’s irritation.
When Granny comes to visit, she’s appalled at what she considers to be dangerous conditions the children are living in. Matters are made worse that night when Saoirse finds the seal skin hidden in a box, puts it on, and makes her way down to the sea. Granny’s mind is made up: the children must come live with her in the city, leaving behind their beloved lighthouse and sheepdog, Cú.
The adventure really starts once the children reach the city. An encounter with fairy folk sets off a race against time as Ben reluctantly has to shoulder responsibilities that could have life or death consequences for his little sister—and wider implications for everyone.
As in The Secret of Kells, the mythology and Catholic faith of Ireland serve as a framework for a story with large themes. Is grief something to leave unaddressed? Can we ignore our past and traditions without causing harm to the future? Can healing come to those who avoid confronting pain?
A pivotal moment in the film sums up the richness of Irish folk traditions, when brother and sister take shelter in a holy well—a place that has both folkloric and Christian overtones. Surrounded by candles and statues of the Virgin Mary, the children make a decisive step toward resolving the crisis they face.
In an interview, the director said that the inspiration for the film came from a holiday trip to the beach with his family. While walking near the water they came upon dead seals. When he asked a local woman about it, she told him that fifty years ago the seals would never have been killed, since the people would still have half-believed the Selkie legends. But having left these beliefs behind fishermen were now killing the seals, blaming the animals for the poor fishing yields.
The anecdote brings to mind a passage from Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI): “The West… no longer loves itself; from now on it sees in its own history only what is blameworthy and destructive, whereas it is no longer capable of perceiving what is great and pure. In order to survive, Europe needs a new—and certainly a critical and humble—acceptance of itself, that is, if it wants to survive.” The emphasis upon what is blameworthy in the history of Western culture has led to an indifference to faith and folklore alike. But there can be antidotes found—even in an animated film for children. In the two movies that Tomm Moore has made we find a powerful yet subtle celebration of the greatness of the Western culture, an appeal based upon beauty and storytelling that compels the viewer through artistic mastery, and a humble acceptance of what we have been bequeathed by those who came before us.
Song of the Sea is available on Blu-Ray and DVD, as well as streaming on various platforms. Parents may want to preview before watching with sensitive younger children; includes some intense/frightening scenes.