For years, I've considered The Secret of the Seal to be one of the best lost gems in animation. The film did not even have an IMDb page until very recently. Now that somebody's posted it, more and more people are going to discover it and I figure I should seize the chance to talk about it now before someone else beats me to it.
The Secret of the Seal is the story of Antonio, a young German student who finds himself relocating to the island of Sardinia with his father and younger sister Francesca after his mother dies. We find out very early on in the film that Antonio's father chooses to relocate not just because he misses his very large and loving family, but also because he feels far more comfortable raising his two children in an environment so far removed from the pollution the city's factories produced that contributed to his deceased wife's ill health. The film presents the city as dim, even dank; the two children, having witnessed their mother's death in a cramped hospital room, understand that their surroundings are oppressive. In contrast, Sardinia is awash with life: trees line up every which way on the rolling hills and plants and wildlife make their homes all the way down to the sea, which is dotted with enormous limestone cliffs. It is while on a tour into one of the many underground caves that Antonio (or Tottoi, as he is rechristened) has an encounter with a Mediterranean monk seal, which has been believed to be extinct for many years, a victim of pollution and over-fishing. Determined to prove that the seal was not just a figment of his imagination, Tottoi ventures back into the cave, but in doing so, opens up an even larger can of worms...
It is here where one can find the meat of the film's story. We know that Tottoi's big mouth will get him in trouble and lo and behold, it does, when his story spreads like wildfire and attracts the attention of an American businessman, who attempts to bribe him for the location of the seals (a mother and her baby) with an asking price of--get this!--one hundred American dollars. Our young hero isn't that easy however and refuses, but this prompts the businessman and his cohorts to take far more drastic, far more illegal measures in ensuring the seals land in their greedy hands. Being a rather short feature (it clocks in at a little over eighty minutes), The Secret of the Seal cannot say everything it may want to. It condemns human selfishness and corporate greed and takes a very obvious stance in favour of conservatism. It is the sort of film that is a perfect introductory teaching tool in which to educate young children on the very real problems that plague our environment, such as pollution (air and marine in particular), over- fishing and even over overhunting and deforestation. It is a film that wears it's sensibilities on it's sleeves, but that's a good thing, as it's able to condense such large issues in ways that a young child can understand and that can inspire young minds to seek more knowledge. It's a very positive film with a very obvious message (the music, for instance, is considerably upbeat, yet it's tone does not fail to darken when the issues presented in this film become far more serious).
The film can't help but be charming in it's scope. It's a film that inspired me to read up more on the very issues it brings attention to. Being an avid reader to begin with, I was more than glad to embrace the film's stress on the values of a good education. Science courses suddenly became more interesting. When we had to write up reports on the problems that plague our world's rainforests, guess who was more than glad to write them? When we had to read a few pages on the price we pay for the landfills we let stack up like scores of Leaning Towers of Pisas and then have presentations on them, guess who who was more than happy to read these pages (and more) and eager to present first? I can feel the effects of this film to this day and I am thankful for it. It remains, to this day, an important film from my childhood.
On the more artistic side of things, this film was a nice introduction into the films of Studio Ghibli. I ate all of those films up. I couldn't help but admire the animation style and the imagination that went into these productions; until then, I had been more accustomed to contemporary American animation of the time and so, I welcomed this new product into my life with open arms. I considered it simply another aspect of a worldly artistic education that would contribute into making me a well rounded adult. I am happy to say that my education still continues to this day. This is just one of the many wonderful things that helped shape it. We all need that first stepping stone!
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