Song of the Sea is by the studio that made The Secret of Kells, and it’s funny, warm, beautiful, and sad, as you’d expect, but that’s not what I want to talk about.
Song of the Sea is about Ben, an Irish boy, and his relationship with his Selkie sister Saoirse, and their race to save her life and the lives of every other fairy or magical creature in the world. It does a lot of things right — the quiet way it lets the family’s trauma play out, the awful (but not quite abusive) way Ben treats his mute sister, his dawning self-awareness about how odious he’s been — those are all handled well, but there are two fundamental things the movie does that bug me:
First, the story is about Ben, not about Saoirse, despite it clearly being her story, not his. I understand this is typical of these kinds of movies, to make the audience stand-in the normal person, but Saoirse is a normal person for the bulk of the movie. She doesn’t have any particular knowledge or insight that would be problematic if it was given or withheld from us, she has the same emotional turmoil and catharsis to go through as Ben, she is literally the person who saves the magical world at the film’s first climax, but she’s consistently backgrounded in his favor, literally deprived of her voice, and it’s frustrating and alienating in a movie that is otherwise so deft emotionally; imagine if Harry Potter were written exclusively from Ron’s standpoint. If there were a gap between the characters — if she were significantly older or younger, say, or bigger or smaller, or more magical, or something — it would have gone down smoother, but the movie has an extended piece through the middle where they are literally tied together (because he has leashed her like a dog, which is simultaneously incredibly assholeish and a particularly well-observed bit of eight year old older brother dickishness), made a narrative unit even as he continues to belittle and berate her. You wouldn’t have had to do much to shift the emphasis here, either — simply shooting the same scenes from her perspective would have done the trick — but that might have made Ben out as too much of a villain. I don’t know. He should have been framed as more of a villain, maybe, and I’m sorry the movie didn’t commit to that empathetic leap. My sympathies as a viewer were entirely with her, but the film kept putting me in his place, and that dissonance was continually distracting.
Second, all the magical creatures go off to the Other World at the end of the movie, like they always do, and that always frustrates me. If your story is about leaving fantasy behind, or transcending it, or going through the harrowing process and returning to the other world informed and enlightened, that sort of thing makes sense, but Song of the Sea was explicitly about accepting yourself for who you are and the people you love for who they are, and not shutting things away simply because they’re uncomfortable. Ben and Saorise go through an entire movie to return her to her true, magical self (at which point she’s finally able to speak!), only for her to cast that away five minutes later because it would mean leaving her frankly terrible human family behind. She gets to keep her voice, I guess, but that’s still pretty paltry a reward. Hell, they get their dead mother back, and she goes off into the Distant West almost immediately. What was the point? That nothing comes without a cost? It feels undercooked. Compare the ending here to Labyrinth — which has a similar “you are a terrible older sibling now go save your kid brother/sister and also magic is real” plot, but which ends with Sarah partying with her goblin friends in the real world, having grown from her experience but not having to repudiate it all to return. That’s satisfying.