Mo’ Faeries, Mo’ Problems: A Song of the Sea Review

Readers of this blog may recall back in January when I reviewed The Secret of Kells, lamenting that I couldn’t find a decent upload of its successor, Song of the Sea, or anywhere I could go to see it legitimately. Funnily enough, wait four months and more options suddenly open up. Which is to say that I have finally seen Song of the Sea. Now, considering the difference in topics I don’t think it would be quite fair to compare them on that level—and really, I don’t want to compare the two in this review—but seeing as they’re both works by Cartoon Saloon a bit of comparison is going to be inevitable. In that vein, I’ll get this out of the way now: I enjoyed Song of the Sea. Did I enjoy it as much as The Secret of Kells? No. For quite a few reasons.

Song of the Sea SealsSpoilers for the entire film under the cut.

Before I get into those reasons, let me sum up the story. Off on the coast of Ireland, a small family lives its days out tending to the lighthouse. Ben, the young son of the couple, is extremely close to his pregnant mother, who revels in telling him tales of faeries and the fae folk. However, one night his mother disappears into the sea, never to be seen again; the implication being that she drowned. Several years later, Ben’s father has still not gotten over her death and Ben now carries with him an intense fear of water and a deeply rooted disdain for his younger sister, Saoirse (pronounced sheer-sha). We can assume that his disdain is a constant, but seems especially harsh on this, Saoirse’s sixth birthday. We also discover that Saoirse has what appears to be selective mutism, in that she has yet to utter a word in her life but her father seems hopeful that she will in the future. Not being able to openly communicate, Saoirse is easily ignored by her brother and is drawn to the open water by a pod of friendly seals. Luckily before she wades too deep into the water the family dog, Cú, alerts Ben… by dragging him into the shallows. Thoroughly wet and angry Ben appeals to his father for punishment for his sister, but he is swept up in the fact that it’s her birthday and Ben is all but ignored. Coming in from the mainland for the celebration is also their grandmother, who wants the lot of them to move to the city with her and forget all the sadness that the lighthouse holds. No one really likes her, though, as she believes her way is right and orders both Ben and Saoirse around to her specifications. The birthday celebration itself? A disaster.

Afterwards, still angry about the day, Ben tells a scarier tale from their mother’s collection, causing Saoirse to seek comfort in the one thing she left the two of them: a shell flute. Upon playing it, a group of twinkling fae show up and lead Saoirse to the top of the lighthouse, and to a chest with a shimmering white cloak in it. Upon putting it on and heading to the ocean—where the fae also lead her—she discovers that she can turn into a seal, making her a selkie. While Saoirse is pleased as punch about this, the rest of her family is not, and upon finding her washed up on shore, the grandmother finally convinces their father to have both the children move in with her in the city.

Song of the Sea Ben Saoirse GrandmotherUnderstandably, neither of them are happy with this arrangement (Ben mostly because he’s forced to leave Cú behind), and so Ben creates a map during the drive to the city, determined to return to his true home. Saoirse attempts to regain that feeling she had while in her selkie pelt by putting on her grandmother’s fur coat, playing the flue, and sitting under the shower, but it doesn’t match up and they both get punished. However, they both sneak out a window and escape. Though Ben is not eager to have his sister tagging along, he lets her come anyway because she is just as stubborn as him in wanting to come along as he is at leaving her in the city.

Grey hairs = Sickness

Grey hairs = Sickness

Strangely enough, earlier when Saoirse played the flute, she attracted the attention of three mysterious creatures. Upon stealing her, Ben tracks the beings down and discovers that they’re faeries in search of a selkie to sing her song so that their friends may be returned to their normal forms (having been turned to stone by Macha the owl witch like in their mother’s stories). Yet, without her pelt, Saoirse is powerless and on top of that, getting sicker by the minute—her illness not being a cold as her family originally thought. Now knowing what the small glowing faeries have been leading her towards, Ben and Saoirse both overcome many trials to save the mythical figures from their stone prisons, the least of which is finding Saoirse’s pelt which their father threw into the ocean.

Needless to say, all is solved by the end of the day, there’s a scene where they all reunite with the mother, and everyone is allowed to live at the lighthouse again. Happy endings for everyone, especially the fae who are able to move on from the human realm into the fae world… I guess. The movie didn’t really say where they were going, but I’m assuming it was there.

My first really big problem with Song of the Sea has to do with something I wrote back in my The Secret of Kells review. I mentioned that I hoped the secondary girl character would have more development, and true enough Saoirse does have more of a purpose than Aisling did, but not much of one. Arguably, its just as much a story as her coming into her powers and it is about Ben learning to cope with the tragedy in his life, but much more focus is placed on Ben. It’s Ben’s journey we get to see, and Ben’s perspective we experience things through. Yes, he’s the protagonist, but really, it’s Saoirse’s story and we don’t get to see any of that.

I did like Macha, though.

I did like Macha, though.

For example, when she ends up captured in Macha’s home—Macha, whose power was sealing away the emotions of herself and others—it’s by her playing the flute that all the emotions are set free again. While this would have been a really great moment to show what Saoirse was feeling, especially since Macha heavily implied that she sealed away some of the girl’s emotions and tried to do the same with Ben, we don’t get any insight into this. For all intents and purposes, Saoirse doesn’t have emotions outside of her reactions to Ben outside of being sick (which isn’t even an emotion). Saoirse is part fae, and thus partly unrelatable to the audience, but she’s also part human, which is never utilized properly. She never feels like an actual little girl despite being brought up in a mortal family and knowing only of mortal things. Saoirse immediately knows to trust the strange fae creatures that come around when she plays the flute and doesn’t fear any of the strange things she sees. Maybe it’s intrinsic, maybe she does just know. But it feels like lazy storytelling and a way to write her out so more time can be given to Ben.

Another point of contention I had with this film was the mythology. I know I’m going to sound like a pedant for saying so, but I really didn’t like how they portrayed the selkie. Mostly because it didn’t really make sense. In lore, it’s not unheard of for mortals to take selkie spouses, and indeed, their father did seem to know their mother was a selkie, but the question is why was the mother dying? It’s implied that Saoirse was dying because she didn’t have her pelt and that she, for some reason, had to sing the song to send the fae back to their world. However, their mother both had her pelt and apparently didn’t have the task to sing this fae-sending song, or else Saoirse would not have been born in the mortal realm. Furthermore, their mother wasn’t at any point being kept from the sea—in some selkie lore, selkies who make contact with humans are not allowed contact with the same humans again for seven years (unless their pelt is stolen or otherwise destroyed), but none of this was the case. It feels like a fridging to further both Ben and his father’s pain. Even in the end where the mother shows back up it doesn’t fill any of these plot holes. There’s no reason why she wasn’t able to visit them when they were growing up, or at least no reason that’s clear—and unlike the other mythical creatures that show up, her form is actually physical so we can assume that she’s not actually dead and this is her spirit. Though, perhaps in my older-than-childhood age, there’s just something I’m missing here.

She is literally wearing her pelt right there.

She is literally wearing her pelt right there.

Finally, the thing that bothered me the most was the handling of Saoirse’s selective mutism. I was honestly surprised that they gave one of the main characters this aspect, and the frustration and hope people around her feel are very realistic. It was very refreshing to see her find different ways to communicate that felt comfortable to her, and seeing Ben adapt to them and learning to understand Saoirse on her own terms. And then they fucked it all up. See, I was thinking that the song Saoirse needed to perform would end up being played on the flute like it had been the entire time, but she ends up using her voice which, ok, sure, maybe her pelt gives her some magic powers or whatever. I can buy that. But after everything is settled, the fae move on and the family has made peace, she retains the ability to speak. I’m aware that selective mutism doesn’t have a “cure” and is entirely dependent on the person who has it, but having it suddenly disappear like this gives it a sense of the “magically disappearing disability”, and that they couldn’t have had their happy ending if Saoirse’s mutism was still present. Additionally, Ben also suddenly, and mysteriously, gets over his fear of the ocean entirely. That’s not how trauma works—even if Ben was able to suppress it for the sake of saving his sister, that doesn’t mean it’s magically gone. It was so empowering to have a story led by children with atypical qualities, and succeeding, but to send the message that they needed to get over these “problems” to have a happy life is just detrimental and irresponsible.

As to be expected from Cartoon Saloon, however, the art is gorgeous and there’s always something interesting to look at. It’s always a joy to see their interpretation of mythology and lore, and it was especially interesting seeing their take on a more modern setting, even if it ended up being kind of dank and depressing compared to their representation of the mythical (although I’m sure this was entirely intentional). The music was stunning, and the voice acting—even the slow burn of a friendship Ben forges with Saoirse—made the movie itself an enjoyable experience despite the issues I had with it. Still, if you’re looking for a movie about Celtic mythology, The Secret of Kells is the better way to go: I found it much more enriching, and if I’m being completely honest, the art was a lot more inspired too.

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About Tsunderin

Greetings and salutations! Feel free to just call me Rin—we’re all friends here, or nemeses who just haven’t gotten to know each other well enough. I’m a video game lover from the womb to the tomb, and Bioware enthusiast until the day they stop making games with amazing characters that I cry over. And while I don’t partake as often as I used to, don’t be surprised to find me poking around an anime or manga every once in a while either. A personal interest for me is characterization in media and how women in particular have been portrayed, are being portrayed, and will be portrayed in the future. I’m not going to mince words about my opinion either.

2 thoughts on “Mo’ Faeries, Mo’ Problems: A Song of the Sea Review

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