Fiction and fantasy holds a special place in my heart. While I encourage you to watch documentaries and series that educate you about the ocean, its ecosystems, and the problems it faces, I also strongly believe that our drive and passion is fueled by the heart rather than the mind.
To inspire us, we need tales of love, adventure – and ultimately – humanity. The stories here are meant to deepen our understanding of our place in the world and augment our desire to change our ways for the better.
Ondine (2009) is an Irish drama and romance that draws reality in with local folklore tales of Selkies – women who can change between seal and human form by shedding their sealskin. This film integrates the industrial life of a trawling fisherman with the glamorous nature of fairy tales, combining two very separate but prevalent oceanic worlds.
Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) is a mysterious woman who is captured in a net by a fisherman at sea (Colin Farrell), and consequently brings a bit of magic into his and his daughter’s lives. Ondine’s name refers to the Undines – elemental beings that are associated with water, as originally named by Paracelsus in his alchemical writings, A Book on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders, and on the Other Spirits (a very poetic essay on paganism, Greek mythology, and philosophy, for those interested in reading it).
The full movie is available above.
2. Song of the Sea
From one of my all-time favourite studios, Cartoon Saloon, comes a magical vision of animation and art. Oscar-nominated, with amazing music and watercolour effects, Song of the Sea (2014) is easily the most beautiful film concerning the wild and haunting beauty of the ocean. The story begins with the iconic quote from the poet Yeats in The Stolen Child, and follows its roots in Irish and Celtic tradition.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping
than you can understand.
– W.B. Yeats
We follow siblings Ben and Saoirse as they travel through magical and urban lands, seeking a coat that will grant voice and power to a Selkie. Watch as they evade the clutches of owl queen Maca, find aid in local fae creatures, and renew the bonds of family along the way.
3. Life of Pi
Based off the Canadian survival/fantasy book by Yann Martel, Life of Pi (2012) is stunning tale of spirituality, practicality, and the relativity of truth. A story for those of all beliefs and religions, Life of Pi re-evaluates what it means to be human and aware, and how our reality is shaped by our surroundings and companions.
If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe? – Yann Martel
While I prefer the book for its encompassing story-telling and poetic writing style, I adore the movie for its colourful cinematography and breath-taking visuals. Few movies capture the liveliness, beauty, as well as danger inherent in the ocean as Life of Pi, which was nominated for eleven academy awards in 2013.
Vaguely reminiscent of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ghibli Studio’s Ponyo (2008) is a heart-warming tale of a magical goldfish named Ponyo who befriends 5-year old human boy, Sōsuke. Directed by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, Ponyo tells of the relationship between mankind and the ocean. Ponyo’s name is even an onomatopoeia created by Miyazaki, meant to show what his idea of “squishy softness” sounds like when touched.
The forces of creation and destruction mingle in this hand-drawn epic of nature and magic, as Sōsuke and Ponyo struggle to make a choice. In the midst of a tsunami and pursued by Ponyo’s wizardly scientist father, the pair must choose between human and aquatic life – or risk disrupting the balance of world. Ponyo is a feel-good movie of purity and innocence, with beautiful and unique depictions of magic, lovable characters, and a resounding theme of love and warmth.
5. The Beach
Filmed on the famous Thai island of Koh Phi Phi, The Beach (2000) is a bit heavier than the other films on this list. The film starts on the quintessential Khao San Road in Bangkok, with Leonardo DiCaprio starring as American traveler Richard. He joins with other backpackers to follow a mysterious map to a beautiful, uninhabited island that is speculated to exist in the Gulf of Thailand; when they finally arrive, however, the island is not as carefree and innocent as it appears. The movie explores the natural beauty of coastal South East Asia, as well as the underlying drugs, crime, and politics that darken the region.
Ironically and sadly, controversy arose from the destruction and landscaping of Koh Phi Phi Leh. An effort by 20th Century Fox to make it more ‘paradise-like’ resulted in lawsuits and reconstruction attempts to restore the natural environment, though the beach remained damaged from its original state until it was ‘restored’ by a tsunami strike in 2004.
It should be noted that since the the early 2000s, when this movie was set, Thailand has become a beacon of modern marine conservation efforts that recruit locals and travelers from across the world. The selfish and materialistic backpackers depicted in this movie still exist, but there are more and more tourists who care for the environment rather than their own comfort and ease. (See Volunteer Organizations for ideas on how to help!)
6. Atlantis: The Lost Empire
In a single day and night of misfortune, the island of Atlantis disappeared into the depths of the sea…
The concept of the lost city of Atlantis is ubiquitous in history and fiction, from Plato to Jules Verne to New Age Clairvoyant Edgar Cayce. ‘The Sleeping Prophet’ (Cayce) wrote extensively about Atlantis and healing – most notably, on the concept of a ‘mother-crystal’ that provides power, health, and long life. Strangely, Disney’s visionary movie Atlantis (2001) seems to be a forgotten side note in their movie empire and is considered a cult favorite, despite unique visuals from comic book artist Mike Mignola, haunting music from James Newton Howard, and beloved writers and actors such as Joss Whedon and Michael J. Fox.
As illustrated by the motto of the film’s creators – “ATLANTIS: fewer songs, more explosions” – Atlantis: The Lost Empire departs from Disney’s tradition of musicals in favor of a more action-packed adventure, which pits capitalist and imperialistic greed of one society against the Utopian ideals of another. Along with poignant and powerful characters, Atlantis boasts a detailed setting that melds architecture from all around the world, including ancient Mayan, Cambodian, Tibetan, and Indian forms.
7. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) is based on Patrick O’Brian’s bestselling seafaring series of English naval captain ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey’s adventures during the Napoleonic Wars. As you might imagine, this film is full of war, explosions, and militaristic life. It is also highly entertaining, featuring Russel Crowe yelling evocative language, such as “Hard to larboard, Mr Warley! Luff, luff, and shake her!” and “Make your conduct most lubberly and un-Navy-like!”
I admit, this movie is less about what occurs in the ocean than what is happening on top of it, but it does provide an insight into the lives of sailors in the 19th century as well as awe-inspiring visuals of the open sea and coastal regions of the Galapagos Islands. Were it not for Lord of the Rings: Return of the King winning nearly all of the Oscars for that year, Master and Commander may well have become more predominant in the category of ocean epics. As it was, it did still beat out Return of the King for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing, for which we can forgive its overtly masculine title.
This list wouldn’t be complete without some sort of post-apocalyptic movie, and what better than to include the cult classic Waterworld (1995). The setting is around 500 years in the future, when the polar ice caps have fully melted and the sea level has risen to cover nearly all land. Humans live on floating communities, and The story revolves around The Mariner (Kevin Costner), a mutated human with gills and fins, and his companions as they seek mythical ‘Dryland’ and evade pirates along the way.
The movie is well known for the “back-seat driver director” mentality of Kevin Costner, which resulted in director Kevin Reynolds leaving the project, composer Mark Isham being replaced by James Newton Howard, and a re-writing of the script at the last minute by Joss Whedon (who described editing in Costner’s ideas as “seven weeks of hell”).
Despite these difficulties, Waterworld has garnered positive, though mixed, reviews over the years – although the story line is slightly lacking, its setting is intriguing and thought-provoking, with extravagant sets with production expenses rising over $175 million (a record at the time). Critic Roger Ebert summed it up when he wrote that it had “images that will stay with me” but “it could have been more, it could have been better.”
Disney’s most recent Princess, is less of a ‘sleep for 100 years’ kind of girl, and more of a ‘explore the world and intimidate gods’ character. Moana (2016) is the story of a strong-willed girl (Auliʻi Cravalho) with a deep connection to the ocean, who must restore balance to the world by returning the heart to the Goddess-Island Te-Fiti. To do this, she must recover it from demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who had stolen it in an attempt to aid humans. The tale is heavily influenced by Polynesian mythology, as well as the fascinating history of the people of the South China Sea.
The Polynesian people’s navigational traditions predated European’s, beginning as early as 300 CE and relied on individual perspective rather than compasses and a cardinal direction system. They were aware of far away lands and had even named distant islands, until the voyagers suddenly stopped exploring, resuming only after a thousand years. Even more interesting are scholar’s theories that climate change and the resultant shifts in ocean and wind patterns were responsible for this sudden halt in exploration, which hints at global phenomena very similar to that happening in our day and age. We can’t be certain what future to expect, but the uplifting nature of Moana and the capabilities of humankind indicates that we should be able to rise above hardships and difficulties along the way.
The full movie is available above.
10. Happy Feet
Happy Feet (2006) is a very happy-go-lucky musical and comedy about the life of penguins in the Antarctic, as well as the human effect on the polar regions through over-fishing and climate change. It has an all-star cast including Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Hugh Jackman, and Nicole Kidman, who perform popular songs from Prince, Stevie Wonder, Freddie Mercury and more in a soundtrack produced by composer John Powell.
This is a slightly silly movie with a lighthearted take on global disasters, yet with all the depressing and pessimistic news we hear about, perhaps that is just what is needed. A moment of note is a deleted scene including Steve Irwin’s cameo as an albatross, which is shot in Irwin’s cherished documentary style – complete with the albatross speaking to the viewer about the various animals present and the effect humans have on their ecosystem.
If you have any recommendations, or feel that I have missed something, please let me know!