Six years ago, the ornately animated Irish indie The Secret of Kells conjured a dream of a fierce, half-baptized early medieval Ireland, half Christian and half Faerie. Dark gods and woodland sprites lingered side by side with the younger faith of the monks toiling at their illuminated manuscripts: two worlds divided by cultus, but sharing a common aesthetic heritage. Song of the Sea, the even more dazzling follow-up film from Kells co-director Tomm Moore, co-founder of the Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon, is a modern-day Irish fairy tale with a late 20th-century setting and roots in Celtic mythology — notably the folklore of selkies, the seal-people who can shed their seal-skins and become human.
In the world of this film, Irish Christianity is now ancient, but still coexists with the lingering memory of elves and fairies. Not far from a Gothic church adorned by statues of the Blessed Virgin, one might discover — perhaps on a tree-covered roundabout — a fairy fort with stone figures representing the fair folk called the Deenashee (na Daoine Sidhe, “the people of the mounds”). Who knows? You might even run into the Deenashee themselves, particularly if it happens to be Halloween.
Like The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea features an imaginative young boy and a magical girl, though the bond between them is closer and deeper. Ten-year-old Ben and his six-year-old sister Saoirse (David Rawle and Lucy O’Connell) live with their widowed father Conor (Calvary’s Brendan Gleeson, who also voiced Abbott Cellach in Kells) and their sheepdog Cú (which means “hound”) in a lighthouse on a lonely island on the Irish coast. From his sweet mother Bronagh (Irish singer Lisa Hannigan), whom he lost when his sister was born, Ben has inherited music, art and stories. Saoirse, who doesn’t speak, doesn’t remember her mother, but she has inherited something even more remarkable, connected with her mother’s nautilus shell flute.
Unsurprisingly, Ben’s feelings toward his sister are complicated, and he deliberately frightens her with their mother’s stories of Macha the Owl Witch, who turned her own son, the giant Mac Lir, into stone by taking away his feelings. Why? Because Mac Lir’s heart was broken, much like Ben and Saoirse’s father Conor, who in his grief somewhat neglects his children until his own mum (Fionnula Flanagan of The Others and The Guard) swoops in to take them to her home in the city.
Song of the Sea is more inspired by than based on Irish mythology (Mac Lir is based on a sea god, and Macha a goddess of various guises, here depicted as a crone, associated in Celtic lore with owls). The world of the movie’s adapted mythology — like the unseen world in a Hayao Miyazaki film like My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away — stands matter-of-factly alongside the everyday world. Moore depicts the cultural legacy of Catholic piety and pagan imagination, like the shrines in a Miyazaki film, as simply part of the landscape, much like grazing cows, electricity pylons (or transmission towers) or a statue of Molly Malone. The Miyazaki influence goes deeper; Studio Ghibli fans may at turns be reminded of Ponyo as well as Totoro and Spirited Away. (Some may also be reminded of the latest film from Miyazaki’s partner Isao Takahata, the much-acclaimed The Tale of Princess Kaguya. For what it’s worth, I prefer Song of the Sea.) Moore has also cited The Jungle Book and Mike Newell’s Into the West as influences, but I keep coming back to Miyazaki.
One of the most striking instances of the film’s juxtaposition of the Catholic, the mythic and the everyday is an Irish holy well where Ben and Saoirse, wandering cross-country, take shelter from the rain, much like the sisters in Totoro stopping at a Japanese Buddhist shrine during a rainstorm. The well is set off by a stone wall and covered with a mound from which emerges the trunk of a tree (perhaps a hawthorn) with roots in the well. Like many trees beside holy wells, it is a rag tree, adorned with strips of cloth — bits of clothing tied to the tree in the hope of accessing the power of the holy well on behalf of the garments’ owners (a sort of reversal of the New Testament stories about healings worked through Jesus’ garments or through handkerchiefs and aprons carried away from Saint Paul).
Inside the mound Ben and Saoirse find a number of large Marian statues and countless smaller images of Jesus, Mary and various saints, along with rosaries and other religious paraphernalia. From the roof hang bunches of dried flowers, and around the well we see a crutch, a pair of eyeglasses and some liquor bottles: tokens, presumably, of prayers for the owners’ infirmities. But Irish holy wells often have an ancient history of pre-Christian piety as well, and when Saoirse plays her mother’s nautilus shell flute, alongside the votive candles winking fairy lights appear, drawing Saoirse’s eyes into the depths of the well itself.
Although there is clearly an artistic kinship between Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells, which evokes an illuminated text brought to life, the new film is visually more mature and more accessible. Both films are strikingly graphical and two-dimensional, with a strong design sense and rich, subtle textures, but compositions in Song are less sharply geometric and there are more organic shapes and fluid movements. The story, too is more universal than Kells, and in particular more accessible to children. (One plot point at the end may require parents to help kids think through the symbolism.) It is also, for me, more satisfying on a number of levels. Kells suffered somewhat from “Junior Knows Best” Syndrome, pitting its young protagonist against a rigidly authoritarian, unsympathetic father figure who is ultimately humbled and defeated. The worlds of Catholicism and mythology were more directly contrasted, leaving the Church looking rather mundane and limited in comparison to the tangible power and magic of the Faerie world. Above all, Kells ended somewhat anticlimactically, never quite achieving the transcendence it seemed to promise.
In all these respects, Song improves on Kells. Conor’s paternal struggles are more gracefully dealt with than Cellach’s stern authoritarianism, and the story’s mythic themes become a metaphorical meditation on the numbing power of grief to sap us of vitality and a sense of connection to the world. While Song includes, if anything, more Catholic iconography than Kells, it doesn’t deal directly with religious life or practice, and doesn’t pit the Catholic and mythic milieus against one another. While it’s true that the wondrous climax belongs to the world of the Faerie statues and landmarks, not the Catholic ones, this is after all only one particular story on one particular Halloween night. The movie’s aesthetic enchants its whole world, suggesting the possibility that on some other night (perhaps the next night, All Saints’ Day?) another story might be told about the Catholic images and artifacts.
Key to the film’s potent spell is its unrushed pace and relatively low-key tone. Virtually all contemporary Hollywood animated films, even better ones like The Lego Movie and Big Hero 6, maintain a frenetic, propulsive narrative momentum, with nonstop dialog and banter and constant action of one kind or another. Like Miyazaki, Tomm Moore isn’t afraid to take the time to breathe deeply, savor moments of silence and beauty, and open the door to wonder and mystery. In the last decade or more, with the exception of Pixar’s magical Wall-E, I can’t think of any Hollywood cartoons about which I could say the same.
The unknown eighth or ninth-century Irish monk who, in a playful respite from his normal work, penned in the margins of a Latin New Testament manuscript an affectionate ode in his native tongue to the mouse-catching prowess of his white cat would surely be astounded to find Pangur Bán again commemorated in pen and ink over a millennium later, romping across backgrounds that look at times like the decorative work of the monks themselves brought to life.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.