Song of the Sea
Song of the Sea (2014) is one of the best hand drawn film I have ever seen from Cartoon Saloon, rivaling the likes the works of Studio Ghibli. Not surprising since the other work I enjoy from them is The Secret of Kells which is another excellent work to behold.
What I want to talk about in this short article is about the song. In particular, why the song seem to have changed the scope of the story which some people find some trouble with.
The question is why did Saoirse's song save not just herself but also the spirits in the story?
All that is expected of the song is that it saves her so saving the surrounding spirits around her seems to come out of nowhere. On my first viewing, I did not see it coming so I see why people think similarly. Did the film foreshadow her song would save the spirits?
The most practical answer I can give is that something needed to happen within the four minutes she was singing. If not, it would be a scene of her spinning and singing in the air which might not be the most visually meaningful. However, I refuse to believe the song is just a filler music video clip, so let us look deeper in the film.
From The Script
Reading into the script, there are several lines indicating that it would. In the early scenes, Ben shows his father the picture on the wall and says:
BEN: She's singing her song so that she can send all the fairies home across the sea.
Another reminder is right before the musical Deenashee is petrified, one of them says:
DEENASHEE: Human child, find the selkie's true coat, then she can sing the song and save us all.
The Great Senachai says something that is more direct:
GREAT SENACHIA: She'll be turned to stone soon, no doubt. You see, without her coat, the selkie has no voice. And without her song, she'll not last the night. And we'll all share in her fate.
The last sentence is very strange yet indicative of the stake involved in saving Saoirse. So is the saving song foreshadowed enough? I don't think so since these are just a couple of lines that one could easily miss. A good foreshadowing would be a scene involving Bronach or other selkies singing and having the same effect, so at best it is only hinted at.
Instead, did the song need to save the spirits? Would the film change if Saoirse was only healed and went back home? So let's explore the meaning of the song.
To be fair, it is known that Saoirse and her voice is magical. Saoirse's stifiled singing through the shell was enough to break Macha's magic; what more if is she used her true voice? (This is speculation as power levels aren't really established anyway.) She was only able to sing after Ben taught her their mother's song.
Which is weird why Ben hasn't taught her the song before after six years of being siblings but that further cements how important the song is. Ben is the only one who has their mother's legacy: not the coat, not the shell, but the tales and the song.
There is a fascinating line that their mother mentions before leaving:
BRONACH: My son. Remember me, in your stories and in your songs. Know that I will always love you. Always.
This is a clever narrative use of oral tradition: passing on the song is passing on the memory and love. Ben teaching her the song is not only symbolic of his forgiveness but also passing the love and legacy of thier mother.
So the song is symbolically and thematically about love but how does this factor in saving the spirits? At the very least though, the song itself has meaning to exist.
The Selkie's Duty
It is interesting to note why their mother wasn't able to sing and free the spirits from Macha's grasp earlier.
Clearly, Bronach can sing and Mac Lir is just outside. So why hasn't she? Rather, it might not be that she won't but she can't. I think Bronach might have no longer any magic or is waning. It might be because she chooses to love Conor similar to The Little Mermaid. By having little or no magic, giving birth to Saoirse might have taken all that Bronach had remaining, which makes more sense in the context of Ben being human and not a magical being.
Whatever the circumstance of the spirit or magical world, she cannot sing to her duty as a selkie, which might be considered taboo or illegal and adds a layer to her being a woman. Hence, the duty of the mother falls onto the daughter.
What we need from the song is simply to call their mother and give Saoirse the pivotal choice of staying or leaving with Ben. By singing the song and sending the spirits home which not only fulfills Bronach's neglected duty but makes her a selkie. This in turn calls their mother's spirit and intends to take Saoirse as a selkie. From this, we might infer that Bronach can't seem to cross to the human world without a selkie's song guiding her to and from. Even without thinking about the backstory, Bronach says this:
BRONACH: All of my kind must leave tonight. But, Saoirse, you are part human. If I take her coat, our worlds will be untangled.
So sending the spirits home is pivotal to give Saoirse the choice of not only staying but forgiving Ben. If Saoirse left to be with her mother, it would mean Ben hasn't been good enough as a brother for her to stay. So she forgives Ben by staying instead of leaving the person who hurts or disregards her. Forgiving someone isn't simply a conversation.
Interestingly, without the choice, forgiving Ben would not mean anything without any narrative or personal impact. Saoirse, Ben and Conor would simply be back home without much ado about nothing. The film is quite clever in setting the stakes. (Who wants to lose their beloved little sister?)
There are more subtleties that help in reading the film as a whole.
Notice how the human and spirit world are similar or paralled in this film. Mac Lear and Conor, Granny and Macha, Dan and The Great Senechai, Saoirse and Bronach are human and spirit world equivalents or doubles. Appearing to look similar and even the voice actors are the same, this use of doubles or parallels heighten the only character without a double: Ben. The hero's journey, growth and forgiveness of Ben is further magnified.
Notice the use of circles is very strong. More importantly, the use of it emphasizes how everything is connected and how the film is centered around a family.
I believe the image above is the most helpful in reading the film. Everything tied in one circle of tales.
The Human And The Spirit World
The two previous fact heighten this fact: there is no distinction between the two worlds. In most films, there is a portal or gateway to the other world but in this film it blurs the line as the same. The world of the magical is no more different from the world of the real; this subtlely works quite well in showing how the problem and resolution of the family and the world is almost the same.
I could have just said Saoirse needed to be a selki but we needed to understand the meaning or weight of the song and what it allowed. In the end, the song has such a sublime serenity and catharsis that one cannot deny. For a film to have this depth and subtlety of choice, it makes me appreciate it more. That is why I believe this is one of the best films to watch that is both accessible yet sublime.