After just one stunning theater viewing, Cartoon Saloon’s Song of the Sea became one of my favorite animated films of all time. From an island nation with a daunting pound-for-pound cultural legacy, this fiercely Irish modern folktale embodies both the intellectualism born in their poet-king pubs, as well as the supernatural climes of their landscapes.
The comparisons to Miyazaki masterpiece Spirited Away have run a bit rampant; I’d like to expound on why this film, while indeed similar in tone, art style, and theme, is more than mere Celtic Miyazaki-esque.
In this article, I’ll discuss the visual and cultural themes of the movie, and explain its message for viewers today. Despite superficial similarities, it is these themes that make it quintessentially Irish. To quote the great Irish novelist John McGahern:
“Everything that we inherit, the rain, the skies, the speech, and anybody who works in the English language in Ireland knows that there’s the dead ghost of Gaelic in the language we use and listen to and that those things will reflect our Irish identity.”
I’ll show that SotS flavors well-known tropes with directed, intentional nuance that makes it more of a continuation of the worldview posited in The Secret of Kells (Moore’s first film). You could almost consider SotS to be a chronological sequel, diving deeper into the schism between spirit and human worlds that began in TSoK. Both reflect the Irish psyche that is the product of a transformation from the island’s Celtic paganism to its inevitable assimilation of Christianity. Where TSoK indulges in the intrigue of that transition, SotS grounds it in a modern story of loss, and offers folkloric lessons as an answer.
Before we begin, I want you to take a moment and consider the single most important question to answer about SotS: Why does Saoirse choose to stay in the end? Answering this will reveal the meaning of this movie, and is the goal of this analysis, so you should have your own ideas before reading this.