While the announcement of the Oscar nominations were a while back at this point, well-deserved grumblings are still going around within the general public about what was nominated and, in some cases, what wasn’t. Many believe that the exclusion of The Lego Movie was either a horrendous oversight or a case of critical pretension at its worst, but there had to be something about the other movies that gained them enough clout to be on the list in the first place. While I think a large reason of why Big Hero 6 made the cut was due to its status as a Disney flick, out of all nominations the one that stuck out to me the most was Song of the Sea. Animated by Cartoon Saloon, the story looks at the story of a young boy and his friend, a young girl who just so happens to be a selkie. Unfortunately, as this movie wasn’t showing in either of the theaters in my town, nor could I find it online, I didn’t get to see it as I had planned. But, all was not lost! This turned out to be the perfect opportunity to finally sit down and watch Cartoon Saloon’s other critically acclaimed film, The Secret of Kells from 2009, and oh my god you guys, it seriously deserves all the hype it gets.
The story focuses on the young boy Brendan and his interactions with the outside world during 8th century Ireland. He, along with several other brothers at a monastery in Kells, are serving under the strict eye of Abbot Cellach (who also happens to be Brendan’s uncle) The Abbot believes that building a huge wall will surely protect the people of Kells from the looming threat of Viking invaders and thus puts a huge emphasis on completing the project, and expects the Brothers to do the same. Said brothers aren’t exactly thrilled to be putting all their efforts behind building this wall, but what other choice do they have? Well, a visiting brother has an answer to that: run. Brother Aidan of Iona, who escaped a previous Viking slaughter on Iona, attempts to convince Cellach that there’s no use in building the wall and that it would be much better to get those who sought shelter in the abbey to somewhere actually safe. His efforts prove futile.
While all this wall talk is going on, Brendan—our main character, I promise—has been fighting with himself over what he should do. He yearns to venture outside the walls of the abbey, yet he doesn’t wish to disobey his uncle (who has forbidden him from going out) and he’s also terrified of what things could be beyond the wall. Brother Aiden, who has noticed Brendan’s interest in creating the elaborate manuscripts that are so iconic of the era, tries coaxing the boy into venturing outside the wall by telling stories of his adventures and supporting Brendan’s imagination. When that proves fruitless, the brother asks a favor: he needs oak berries from the forest to create the vivid green ink needed to finish the Book of Kells. While Brendan doesn’t seem too keen on retrieving the berries at first, he eventually convinces himself and heads out to the forest for the first time.
All goes well at first, but soon the dangers of the outside world catch up with him and he is attacked by wolves. However, he is saved by a fae who protects the forest: Aisling. Understandably, she’s wary of Brendan, but the two become fast friends and she helps him find the berries. Before she can lead him back out of the forest, Bredan becomes distracted and finds himself in a dark part of the forest. Though Aisling begs him to leave, something seems to be drawing the boy towards a cave, and only when the fae knocks over a statue, barring him from the entrance, does she finally explain—the cave is home to the beast Crom Cruach who is responsible for the murder of Aisling’s parents and many other misdeeds.
Back at the abbey, thrilled with the retrieval of the oak berries, Brother Aiden teaches Brendan all he knows about creating beautiful scripts. He becomes despondent, though, when he reveals he cannot teach all that he knows. For Brendan to truly understand the artistry, he needs a tool called the Eye of Collum-Cille which was destroyed back in Iona. Before Brendan can offer to find it, though, his uncle busts in, grounds Brendan, and chastises Aiden for his foolishness during this time when they should be focusing on preparing for the Vikings. Yet with the help of Aisling, Brendan manages to escape house arrest and obtains another Eye of Collum-Cille from Crom Cruach, defeating the foul creature in the process.
There is very little time to celebrate, however, as soon after Brendan returns, the Vikings actually do invade and burn most everything in the abbey to the ground. The Abbot is left for dead, and Brendan and Aiden are forced to make a run for it. The two survive, traveling the world, and eventually Brendan grows into a man. He returns to the abbey and brings peace to his uncle, who survived and lived in sorrow thinking that his nephew had died, as well as bringing him the finished Book of Kells.
If you’ve seen advertising for this film before, I’m sure you’re very familiar with Aisling, the white-haired fae girl. She’s pretty much the face of the movie, she has the beginning monologue, and I’m actually still surprised the movie wasn’t about her. What I was expecting going in was a fairy tale, and if that’s what you want, maybe this movie isn’t for you. Despite having fantastical elements, the movie itself is not fantastical. And while this is kind of disappointing because I wanted a fairy tale about fae in Celtic mythology, it also gives justice to the movie’s story. It was obvious from the beginning that the Abbot’s wall wasn’t going to keep the Vikings out, but if that ended up being solved by fae magic, that would have ruined any chance for character development on the part of the Abbot and taken away the impact of the trials that the early Irish Christians faced. Which brings me not to a second thing I didn’t like, but a second warning about the film: it is brutal for a children’s movie. Some of the parts are legitimately scary, and people do die. If that’s not what you’re into, well… don’t keep yourself from watching it, but maybe skip through some of the parts near the end.
One of the things the movie does well is creating a cast of well-developed characters. The brothers at the abbey are incredibly multi-cultural and despite having maybe only a couple lines each all of them have their distinct personalities. I love them all, and I really appreciate how it’s basically a huge fuck you to so many people who think that different ethnicities just… didn’t exist in the historical past. And while Abbot Cellach is clearly the antagonist of the film, Kells doesn’t paint him in a bad light. He’s not evil, he’s afraid. He’s not heartless, he’s stubborn. Of course it’s easier to sympathize with Brendan, who is a child barred from the outside world, but Cellach has to worry about Vikings, building the wall (which he helps out with himself), keeping the abbey actually running, and making sure they have enough supplies for the brothers as well as the ever-increasing group of refugees. He has a lot on his plate, and it’s not unreasonable for him to want to make sure Brendan is somewhere he knows where to find him. Aiden isn’t a perfect person either, although Brendan clearly idolizes him. The old brother is clever and idealistic—just what the boy needs to counterbalance his uncle—but he’s also a coward, a man who easily gives up, and is swayed by his emotions just as easily. It’s only by combining these two seeming extremes that Brendan grows and finds his own path. So in the end no one really ends up as “good” or “bad”. Just people trying to live (without getting slaughtered by Vikings).
I still have to say that for as much as I associate The Secret of Kells with Aisling, I really do wish she was in the movie more. I can appreciate that she wasn’t turned into a love interest, but she kind of ends up as a plot device to make sure Brendan ends up safe in the end. Twice she shows him out of the forest, once she saves him, and she’s the only way he can get into Collum-Cille’s lair. While I am glad she has a character, I just wish we got to see more of it: what story couldn’t benefit from a girl overcoming the same fears about the outside world (in this case, humans) as Brendan did? (Also I have a soft spot for mischievous girls that aren’t malicious, but can still take care of themselves.) I at least hope that Song of the Sea will give its secondary female lead more development.
While writing this, I’m still going through Wikipedia in shock over how much of this film is true to history. As someone who’s not really into religious history, I had no idea the Book of Kells was a real thing; I can’t believe I got suckered into a semi-educational film… Additionally, while the art is beautiful on general principle you can really see Cartoon Saloon’s love of manuscripts as each Celtic knot and each traditional drawing is rendered with the utmost care and attention. While I didn’t get the fairy tale movie I wanted, The Secret of Kells completely made up for it with its wonderful characters, its historical context, and the dedication Cartoon Saloon had to just making a really, really good children’s animated film. It’s no wonder they’ve been compared to Studio Ghibli! I’m more excited than ever to see if Song of the Sea matches up, and if it even comes close, the film will have definitely earned its Oscars nominee spot in my eyes.