(2009) dir. Tom Moore, Nora Twomey
viewed: 04/07/10 at the Embarcadero Cinemas, SF, CA
This Irish animated feature film managed to garner an Oscar nod this year for best animated film, perhaps more significant from a promotion and distribution perspective than an all-out plaudit. Still, it’s one of those films that I find myself having to tell people about because no one has seemingly heard of it. Well, that’s the benefit for my kids that I seek out not just the big films that all their peers see and want to see, but the more odd or unusual children’s film experiences out there as well.
Actually, the kids both really liked the film. It’s a story about the Book of Kells, Ireland’s great national treasure, an illuminated text dating back to the 9th century, a time when literacy and history and knowledge were at a serious ebb, putting at risk the great literature of antiquity (and much else), at the hands and swords of the marauding Vikings and the generally uneducated. It fell on monks and the like to keep the practice alive of copying texts, and in this case, illustrating them and decorating them with unique designs and imagery.
While that hardly sounds like the stuff of a childrens’ movie, it is, set around a young monk-in-training at the village of Kells, who wants to learn the art of adding to the books. And in his ventures from the protected place of his uncle the abbot’s, he heads into the forest to meet a forest spirit who takes the form of a young girl or a white wolf and who introduces him to the mysticism and pagan “realities” that are at conflict with the most traditional approaches of his uncle’s belief.
The film is designed in a very stylized 2-D, in which characters have simplified forms, though far from naturalistic. At times this design style seems vaguely a litte too TV-animation level, meaning the simplified forms do not evoke depth of character and their simplicity makes for easier or “limited” animation. But the style is not purely functional because the designs of the settings (which are also very abstracted and strangely 2-D but wonky) are also given to great flights of surreal fancy.
I was reminded, though it’s been years since I’ve seen it, of the mythological sequences in the film version of Watership Down (1978), in which the designs are illustrating a fantastical storytelling and are significantly stylized and abstracted. And the design in The Secret of Kells is influenced by the designs in the Book of Kells, with much Celtic knots and crosses and a rich, vivid decorous system. And ultimately, it works.
I was also struck by some of the music, which interestingly was composed by Bruno Coulais, whose music has struck me in the film Coraline (2009). There is something magical about the music, especially the one “song”, sung by the forest spirit, calling to the friendly cat to help her to “go where I cannot”. It is not such a common thing for me to be struck by music of this type and so it’s particularly notable to me in that these two animated films both had rung a similar bell in my mind.
The kids did enjoy the film, liking the design style. Felix noted that the film was short and that “nothing really happened in it”, which is debatable, but I do have to agree that the ending had a mild anti-climax. Still, this is a lovely animated feature, something that is not like the other films out there, to be forgotten, mixed-up with one another, confused in memory. And I’m glad that we saw it.