Song of the Squee
I’ve been anticipating the movie Song of the Sea. (Trailer: iTunes, YouTube)
That’s a risky move, I know. Movies are by and large an exercise in disappointment. As one franchise after another manages to crush all originality and quirkiness out of stories in favor of the safe bet, the result is a bland mash of interchangeable characters, plot lines, and Heartwarming Messages that drip out from your brain as soon as you leave the dark theater for the cold, bright world outside.
And yet. I anticipated. I hoped. I had reason to hope, because at least some of the folks behind Song of the Sea, especially director/writer Tomm Moore, were also involved in The Secret of Kells, which honestly rates as one of my best moviegoing experiences ever. Secret of Kells contains monks, fairies, manuscripts, and vikings. Which is to say, someone peered into my secret soul and decided to make a movie of all the things I really, really dig. In short, Secret of Kells knocked me out. I was enchanted by the animation style and the story. It was a Good Movie, full stop. That’s rare.
So, when I heard Song of the Sea was being made, and I saw teaser previews and concept art, I was already in. But what if, you know, it was a letdown? What if it was Not Good?
I saw it. It was Good.
It was better than good, hence the capitalization. In fact, it’s seriously amazing, and it’s going to take a monumental effort to dethrone Song of the Sea from its barnacle encrusted throne of Best Movie Jocelyn Saw in 2015. (What I’m saying is, bring your A-game, Furious 7.)
But, Jocelyn, WHY is Song of the Sea amazing?
IT JUST IS.
Can I have more detail?
FINE. Let’s break this down.
IT LOOKS AMAZING. The animation style is the polar opposite of recent Disney movies, which emphasize CGI-driven, uncanny valley, plasticky characters with none of the charm of the classic (i.e. 2D) Disney look. The pacing is frenetic, and — I’m going on record here — the music is forgettable at best and screechy-terrible at worst.
Song of the Sea doesn’t care about any of that. It uses freaking WATERCOLOR backgrounds half the time. Characters push aside layers of foreground like a pop-up book come to life, and in every frame, we can see the repeated, stylized patterns of circles and soft arcs that run through the whole movie.
In Song of the Sea’s world, Newgrange never went out of style. Tiny, glowing mandalas float like pollen, leading the characters and the viewer into the next scene. Everywhere, “natural” perspective is tossed away in favor of a more geometric, mythic beauty. If it were a terrible story, Song of the Sea would still be gorgeous to look at.
Happily, the story is just as compelling. It takes inspiration from the Irish/Celtic legend of the selkie, in which a fairy seal-wife may marry a human and live on land for a time, but is always in danger having to return to the sea. Throw in a few other legendary figures (Giants! Fairies! Owl-Witches!) and you wonder if there’s any room left for humans.
But of course, there is room. This is a story of a family. Ben is our gateway to the story. He’s the son of Conor and Bronagh, and the big brother to Saoirse. Bronagh died giving birth to Saoirse, and her loss permeates the early scenes. (Um, spoiler alert, I guess. But that's less a spoiler than a premise. And anyway, this isn't a review; it' just me rambling incoherently. Where was I? Oh, yeah!) Ben knows he’s supposed to be a good big brother, but it’s hard. When a secret about Saoirse and Bronagh’s linage is revealed, though, it falls to Ben to help set things right.
That’s the easy summary. It’s inaccurate. Ben is not the hero. He plays an important role, but all the characters have important roles, and the balance among them is a huge strength in the story.
You’re going to bring feminism into this, aren’t you?
OF COURSE I AM. As a writer myself and a member of several online and meatspace communities where the concept of women in literature/gaming/movies/take-your-pick is still debated, I have Strong Opinions on the matter. So how does a movie written by two dudes (Tomm Moore and Will Collins) fare when it comes to the representation of female characters?
Actually, really well! Song of the Sea doesn’t have a huge cast, and there are four named female characters.
Bronagh: Conor’s late wife, mother to Ben and Saoirse, owner of a mysterious coat.
Saoirse: six years old, doesn’t speak, great swimmer, likes shells and music.
Granny: Conor’s mom. Knows what’s best. Doesn’t like to see people cry.
Macha: owl witch. Likes owls, tea, and jars. Doesn’t like to see people cry.
There are a few more male characters:
Ben: about nine years old. a little angst-y. loves but resents his little sister.
Conor: Ben and Saoirse’s father, mourning the loss of Bronagh. Lighthousekeeper.
Dan, The Ferryman: An old man who operates a ferry, not a fairy man. (relatively few lines)
Mac Lir: Mythical giant (no lines, just tears)
Fairies (drawn as little old men, but essentially sexless)
A bus driver (unnamed, only a few lines)
Cu: Ben’s dog. (No lines, because dog.)
Of the male characters, only Ben and Conor count as major. In nearly every scene, male and female characters share screen time and conversations (Saoirse doesn’t speak, but communicates quite well). The women are hugely influential, powerful, and decisive. I can’t recall a single scene in which a female character cedes any authority to a male character. I suppose Saoirse does to Ben, but since she’s six, and he’s nine/ten, and they’re siblings, that make total sense. Also, Saoirse tends to immediately do what she wants right afterward anyway.
Is it silly to worry about feminism and the representation of women in an animated film for kids? Not if you think kids learn by seeing. Song of the Sea is just another data point that shows two dudes can portray female characters very successfully, and in balance with male characters, with virtually no loss to the story itself. Indeed, it makes the story far stronger than if, say, Ben went on a hero’s quest alone while Saoirse sat passively awaiting rescue.
Furthermore, virtually every character shows a lot of emotion. Nearly everyone cries. Kids cry. Women cry. Men cry. The story is often melancholy. But then again, it’s Irish, so what did you expect? Sadness production is part of the Irish national economy.
I think you're making that part up, Jocelyn.
Nope! I checked on this and it’s true. An expert confirmed it, and said they use a proxy measurement of tears (in litres per capita, tracked on a year to year basis).
Do you have anything negative to say about this movie, fangirl?
Well, there are no cats in it. No Pangur Ban!
On the other hand, there are multiple owls, which are well understood to be the Kitties of the Sky. SO NO. I HAVE NOTHING BAD TO SAY.
Takeaway: Go see Song of the Sea in theaters if you can (Rotten Tomatoes had it at 97% when I posted this. 97!). See it in multiple theaters. See it more than once! Buy more tickets than you need! Tell the box office person you’re seeing Song of the Sea even if you’re really there to see American Sniper. And when Song of the Sea comes out for rental or DVD, buy a copy in every format. Also, send money to the filmmakers. Unmarked, nonsequential bills are accepted everywhere! Artists love them!
Final Point: I couldn’t fit this in anywhere else, but I wanted to include my favorite observation from my viewing partner: “I don’t think public transportation works as shown in the movie”. VALID POINT, TRANSPORTATION PLANNER. VALID POINT.