AKA: Amhrán na Mara
Year Released: 2014
Running Time: 93 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: The Secret of Kells, Ponyo, Spirited Away, The Little Mermaid, Eleanor’s Secret, Haibane Renmei, Children Who Chase Lost Voices
-Minor spoilers will be mentioned in this review.
-This is the second full-length film from Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon. Some of the people who worked on The Secret of Kells worked on this such as director/creator Tomm Moore, Irish band Kila is back on composition duties, and actor Brendan Gleeson (who played Abbot Cellach) returns by playing Connor, the father in this movie.
-This film won the Satellite Award for Best Animated or Mixed Media Feature. Put this in perspective: This is the same award that was given to films such as A Bug’s Life, Spirited Away, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Fellowship of the Ring, and the 2nd and 3rd Toy Story movies.
-Hey, music fans! Do you recognize Lisa Hannigan? She’s a solo artist who’s most famous for being in Damien Rice’s backing band. You know the female singer in his duet song “9 Crimes”? Yeah, that’s her. She plays Bronagh, who is the selkie mother of Ben and Saoirse. You’re welcome.
This movie was immediately on my radar after watching and reviewing The Secret of Kells. Even though that movie has some noticeable flaws, I did enjoy it and I wanted to see more from Cartoon Saloon. This studio has caught my attention and I wanted to see their later film projects. Maybe this Irish studio could become another animation powerhouse and one that’s outside America, Japan, or even France.
Now, let’s see how their sophomore project holds up.
Song of the Sea is a film that involves a kid named Ben. Ever since he was very little, his family has lived in a small seaside island town where his mother Bronagh (rhymes with Rhona) tells him various stories involving Celtic mythology. She is about to give birth to what would be Ben’s little sister Saoirse (pronounced Seer-sha). The mother has been missing ever since giving birth to that girl. Six years later, Saoirse celebrates her birthday and has been mute since birth. Ben blames the mother’s disappearance on his younger sister while at the same time, their father Connor spends his nights at the local tavern while grieving his wife’s situation. Later that day, Saoirse discovers the mother’s secret treasure chest in the house after using the large seashell (left behind by Bronagh). She opens it to find a white coat that allows her to transform into a seal in the sea while giving her selkie-based abilities. The kids then get wrapped up in a mystical plot with faeries, sentient owls, magic, and selkies that resemble the stories that Ben remembers.
Let’s start out with the animation. Great googly moogly was it amazing. Song of the Sea uses several texture-based animations, is hand drawn, and has a watercolor-like feel to the characters and backgrounds. The character designs are simplistic, yet quite inventive. The coloration is phenomenal with each hue accentuating the atmosphere and emotions of whatever scene is there. Cartoon Saloon has really outdone itself in the visual department. The production is just jaw-dropping and I was way more impressed with the animation here than in several other movies that came out this decade so far. Keep in mind, this was done by an independent production (no, Universal didn’t help with the production despite them bringing that movie stateside along with GKIDS). It’s great that there’s quality 2D animation even in the 2010s that isn’t just done by Japanese or French animators especially given the over-reliance on 3D animation, CGI productions, etc. Call me old-fashioned, but I like the tactile feel of quality hand-drawn animation.
The music is also noteworthy. Compared to The Secret of Kells, this relies much more on music and sound effects even though I wouldn’t call it an animated musical. I thought it was cool that most of the songs were in Gaelic despite most of the dialog is in English. It really adds to the Celtic overtones and aesthetics. Kila has done it again by having composing duties. Even the little sound effects with the seashell being used as a trumpet were quite riveting.
The characters were quite good in this story. You have Ben, who’s this imaginative boy who’s into Celtic stories, but has issues with his sister. I really like his character development in being a protective brother to her. As an older brother myself, I found him to be quite relatable, and there are several times when I wished I could be a better older sibling. When he’s begging his father to know where the selkie coat was, I was rooting for him all the way and he became a much better person compared to what he was at the beginning of the film. I did have some concerns about Saoirse during her first few scenes and with her being mute. I hoped that they weren’t going to pull off some non-verbal autistic angle with that character, but I’m so happy they didn’t go there and the 2nd half of the story proves that it was the case for that character. She has great nonverbal cues to communicate with Ben and the various magical creatures around her. Saoirse accepts her duty to use the selkie powers for good to protect the creatures that exist without the humans knowing about them. It was also great seeing the magical creatures around even though they don’t have as much screen time. They are quite colorful characters who don’t overstay their welcome while without being annoying like so many other movies of that ilk. Connor, the father is such a heartbroken man. It’s interesting that there’s a single father in a movie like this. Even though he only shows up in the first and final acts, he feels like things are hopeless until he’s convinced to fight off his sadness. The villain Macha was atypical for an animated film like this. She actually has a sympathetic reason for doing these things even though there’s bad intent. Yes, I know she looks a bit like an owl/humanoid version of Yubaba from Spirited Away, but her personality and motivations are much different compared to that other witch. Without giving away the plot, Macha was really an anti-villain who actually has feelings of remorse while being unaware of the ramifications of her actions. This was really refreshing since she could’ve been some heartless monster or some Disney villain wannabe right then and there.
The plotting was quite fun, but it’s not perfect. I liked the usage of Celtic mythology references. Even Tir Na Nog was brought up. Being a 90s kid, I immediately thought of Mystic Knights of Tir na Nog (or what I sometimes refer to as the Medieval Irish Power Rangers), but it wasn’t like that show at all. It was interesting using the stories as parallel narratives, but I will admit that it wasn’t as clever as the creators might have wanted it to be. As soon as I saw that flashback scene of the giant Mac Lir and how he suspiciously looked like Connor with longer hair and a bigger beard, I knew exactly where they were going given the relations of the other human characters involved. Let me make this clear: I’m not trying to insult anyone’s intelligence, but I thought it was obvious seeing the other magical characters looking like some of the humans with Macha being the most painfully obvious after watching said Mac Lir scene if you look at the right signs. If you saw Song of the Sea, and this was all a surprise to you, then more power to you. I just wished that the creators would make it more unpredictable.
It also dawned on me that Song of the Sea had some unintentional parallels to a certain other movie. I’m not sure if anyone else had noticed this, but I noticed a few things going on:
-There’s a maritime setting.
-There’s a sheepdog who hangs out with the protagonists.
-A major character element involves half-human/half-marina animal elements.
-A main character’s voice (or lack thereof) is a major plot point.
-There’s a single father as a secondary character.
-[Spoiler warning] The ending involves a choice between living in the sea or living with the humans on the surface.
-The lead villain is an old and overweight witch.
Yeah, I’m going to say this right here…Song of the Sea is what The Little Mermaid SHOULD HAVE BEEN! Don’t worry, the overall plot is much different compared to that Disney movie or the original Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. There’s also so much depth with the characterization, the morals involved, and it’s a heck of a lot less sexist implications compared to that movie. Also on a side note that’s unlike The Little Mermaid, the only conversation between two female characters (not saying who) was about selkies and being “home”. That’s right, this movie passes the Bechdel Test! Trust me, there are other movies that deserve to be called rip-offs, and Song of the Sea isn’t one of them. I’d tell you if it was, but I think some people might bring up these passing similarities if they look close enough.
I did have a few issues with this movie though. One big plot hole was the family aspect with all the characters. How is it that only Saoirse had access to selkie abilities while Ben didn’t despite having the same mother? They never explain it. You could argue that selkies are females only, but that only makes the situation more of a headache. I also wished they would’ve expanded a bit on the mythical aspects of the plot. People in Ireland would know most of those stories right away. I’m glad most of them were briefly explained, but I would’ve liked to have seen more of the faeries or the ramifications of their situation besides the parts where Macha’s owls try to turn them to stone. The other characters do come back briefly in the finale, but I think more of a spotlight would be nice without getting too much into exposition dump territory.
Song of the Sea was a solid movie from beginning to end. The animation production is phenomenal and highly creative. The music is quite pleasing and the sound effects work so well. There are great characters that are quite relatable. Unlike other features of its kind, it’s family-friendly without alienating adult viewers while making a story for all ages (Eleanor’s Secret didn’t do this as well) at the same time, it doesn’t feel like a glorified toy commercial. I mean, it’s safe to say that you’re not going to find Saoirse dolls or selkie coats next to Elsa, Barbie, or those stupid Monster High things anytime soon, and I mean that as a HUGE compliment to Cartoon Saloon. The plotting is mostly good despite some plot holes and inconsistencies here and there. It would cheapen the praise by calling Tomm Moore the Irish Miyazaki despite some Ghibli influence in his work. He’s carving out his own identity and I look forward to more movies from him and Cartoon Saloon. Definitely Recommended.
Adjustable Point System:
Add 1 point if you love Celtic elements.
Subtract 2-3 points if you like animated films to be less artsy.
Subtract 1 point if you prefer your animated movies to be more like musicals.
-Jaw-dropping animation production
-Believable characters and character development
-Fantastic musical score and sound design
-Some plot holes with the selkie mythology
-Lack of ramifications for the magical elements
-Some predictable elements of the Celtic myth parallels
Final Score: 9/10 points
Content Warning: This film is rated PG which I agree with. Some of the scenes with Macha and her owls will scare younger viewers. There’s even an implication that if the selkie doesn’t sing her song, the magical creatures will all die with the weight of that reality flying over the younger viewer’s heads. Some secondary characters smoke pipes, but I didn’t think that’s a big deal. The biggest objectionable thing would be that Connor is strongly implied to be an alcoholic given his nights at the bar. You don’t see him drinking these beverages outright, but it is mentioned that he regularly visits the local tavern as he drowns his sorrows over his missing wife. After watching this film, I also had a realization that Macha inhaling magical elements from jars to numb her emotional pain could be harsher in hindsight since it could be an unintentional metaphor for the opioid crisis.
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