May 272010

A couple nights ago I saw this little gem at the Metro cinema in the U-District. It is playing definitely until Thu, June 3rd. So GO now before it leaves. Trust me, you want to see this one on the big screen.

The Secret of Kells is an animated feature out of Ireland (from studio Cartoon Saloon) but was made in conjunction with Les Armateurs, a french studio that also brought us The Triplets of Belleville (which is screening as part of SIFF for FREE this Saturday, May 29th at 9PM at Juanita Beach Park).

It scraped its way into Oscar nomination qualification by organizing for itself a short theatrical run in New York (one of the ways you are eligible), and is being distributed theatrically in the US by a division of the New York International Children’s Film Festival, a well-regarded festival in New York that has just recently branched out into distribution (earlier distributions include Sita Sings the Blues by Nina Paley, (see previous posts) and Azur & Asmar, the most recent feature from French animator Michel Ocelot (I saw this at the SIFF cinema a couple years ago – it was Ocelot’s first foray into CG animation, and though beautiful, the story and structure were sadly unsatisfying). I include these notes because I always find it interesting to see exactly how a short/feature makes its way from a small studio to the big time. I think the NYICFF is a distributor to watch out for.

As for the film, it was pretty awesome.  Just check out some of these stills. It’s a story loosely based on the history of the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four gospels of the New Testament.

It was written by Celtic monks around 800 AD and gets its name from the Abbey of Kells where it was kept for most of its existence. It is now permanently on display at the Trinity College Library in Dublin. It’s famous because of the complex and detailed illustrations that accompany the text. On the left is one of the most famous pages.

The film follows a boy, Brendan, who is in training to be a monk in the Abbey of Kells, presided over by his Uncle the abbot. The Abbey is in the middle of building a great round wall around itself to protect from the approaching Vikings when an older monk, a famous illuminator, arrives at the Abbey, having just escaped a Viking raid.  Brendan learns from this older monk the art of illumination (illuminating?), that is, painting detailed illustrations, against his Uncle’s wishes.  He also forays into the surrounding woods and encounters a forest spirit named Aisling who helps him procure berries and fight an evil snake monster. All this accompanied by an ADORABLE cat side-kick named Pangur. Eventually the abbey of Kells is faced with an attack by the Vikings which look like evil robots, and the famous half-completed book must be saved.

As you can see from these stills, the movie is beautiful. The artists obviously tried to mimic the real book’s illustrations in their use of ornament and flatness. The Art Director was Ross Stewart. A lot of scenes use two perspectives in one, for example the interior of the abbot’s tower which you can see on the left. The chalk drawing of the barricade under construction is a bird’s eye view, while the rest of the room is head-on. They also employed a lot of ingenious story-telling devices to depict the passage of time or a character traveling from one place to another, such as dividing the screen into three parts (triptych, get it?) and having Brendan hopping over a rock in the first tier, crossing a field in the second, etc.

The animation was a mixture of traditional cell animation and 2D and 3D computer animation. This was a very strong part of the film. The different techniques worked together perfectly and you were left with a sense of wonder whenever something moved.

The cat was very well animated and I would watch the movie again just for her, but by far the most interesting character is Aisling, the forest fairy, and the film suffers after she leaves. In fact, without ruining it for anyone, the ending seemed to arrive quite abruptly. I literally blinked, and we were in the final stage. I would have appreciated a stronger resolution for Aisling.

The last thing I’ll say is that despite being an fun coming-of age story, one can’t escape the film’s modern political undertones.  This is Ireland after all, and Ireland has been screwed over many times in history.  How can you watch this film without thinking of the more recent Irish-British conflict? The filmmakers purposefully depicted the Vikings as anonymous evil robots, which I recognize as an attempt on their part to make them a more general enemy, but was this wise?

It seemed to make the film very simplistic: Celtic culture=good, everyone else, whether Vikings or any other enemy=bad. I understand that this is a kid’s movie and good vs. evil works, but I would have liked to see an attempt at least in the direction of complexity.

Overall, though, this was a very inspiring trip to the cinema and I plan to buy this DVD as soon as possible (special features here I come!)

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