Song of the Sea’s Celtic comment on the contemporary world
“Inspired by decaying seal carcasses,” would make a lousy tagline, especially for an ornately animated, storybook film like Song of the Sea. So, though director Tomm Moore (2009’s Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells) says his latest beautiful-beyond-belief riff on Celtic mythology was inspired by the grisly scene he and his 10-year-old son discovered on a beach along the coast of Western Ireland—the decomposing bodies of several seals slaughtered by a fisherman who supposedly blamed the creatures for the bad fishing he’d had in the past few years—parents will be happy to know that Song of the Sea contains nothing nearly so hateful or violent. The most disturbing image a child’s likely to see here is a teary-eyed adult—found, most likely, both onscreen and off.
In his earliest, pre-opening-credits memories, protagonist Ben exists partially in the hazy realm his mother conjures through Celtic folk songs and tales. If Ben confuses the mythical with the mundane, fog-shrouded, outer edges of his tiny world (his father, Conor, bears a striking resemblance to the sea god Mac Lir, for example), the boy has a better excuse than most. His father is a modern-day lighthouse keeper and his mother, believe it or not, is something even more mythical—a selkie, a person who transforms into a seal. It’s a gift she bequeaths to her newborn daughter, Saoirse, in what ends up, tragically, both a water birth and a burial at sea.
While Ben resents having to take care of the fragile child as he had promised his mother, Conor grieves for his wife by guarding Saoirse too closely, locking away the selkie coat Saoirse needs to transform into a seal. It’s a story at least as old as any of the myths Song of the Sea references, but the immense value in a tale retold is one of the film’s major themes. Song of the Sea’s subtlety is such that it manages to tell a largely tragic fable about the paralyzing effects of grief within a fully realized fairytale land.
Moore claims that discovering the gruesome crime of the murdered seals caused him to compare current values to those imparted by ancient folk wisdom. It’s apparent that he finds the Celtic legacy to be superior in at least one respect: a person whose belief system held seals to be magical creatures would never kill them gratuitously. Rather than creating the environmentally focused film that might be expected, however, Moore seems most interested in examining the reasons we have chosen to abandon our ancestors’ wisdom. The modern world so vividly depicted in Song of the Sea seems hopelessly adrift without them. Whether a more direct statement would have been more helpful to the real-life seals themselves could be debated, but Song of the Sea is inarguably a fine collection of ponderous metaphors that will no doubt sink deeper as time passes.