Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Toon-arama: The Secret of Kells (2009)

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day being right around the corner, let’s take a trip to the Emerald Isle. Or rather, since I can’t afford plane tickets for all of you, let’s bring Ireland here. The Secret of Kells is not only set in Ireland, but was produced by a promising young Irish animation studio—so it’s Irish all-around. The film is a beautiful and unique work of traditional animation, which alone makes it worth seeing. The story is quite charming, as well, though there is one incredibly glaring omission, which I will get to.

** spoiler alert **

The film is based on the real-life Book of Kells, a 9th c. manuscript Gospel considered the finest work of medieval Irish illumination and a national treasure. In homage to the Insular style of its inspiration, the film takes on a deliberately 2-dimensional look, dense with detail. Scroll-work, vines and knots curl around highly stylized yet sparsely drawn characters. Celtic crosses, triquetra, spirals and circles are slipped into nearly every background. Each frame explodes with vivid color giving each location its own unique palette. Taking the artwork a step beyond the middle ages, every ornate detail is in constant cartoon motion. But words hardly do justice, so take a look at these:
The narrative, a fictionalized origin of the Book of Kells is refreshing in that it is simple without being simplistic. It follows Brendan, a young orphan who is growing up in Kells monastery. His attentions are torn between pleasing his watchful uncle, the Abbot, whose only concern is building a huge wall to protect the abbey from the approaching Northmen, and learning the art and craft of manuscript from the monks who regale him with tales of the Book of Iona, a masterwork of generations of master illuminators. The balance is upset when Aidan, the only survivor of the of the Northmen’s raid on Iona, arrives with the renowned Book.

Aidan immediately enlists Brendan to help complete the Book. This leads Brendan to a series of adventures, both in the scriptorium under the master illuminator’s tutelage, and beyond the abbey walls, where he encounters the fairy Aisling and confronts the pagan god Crom-Cruach. When the Abbot learns of Brendan’s actions, he forbids him from working with Aidan or leaving the abbey. But Brendan’s preoccupation with finishing the Book is as great as his uncle’s fixation on finishing the wall. Meanwhile, the Northmen are continually approaching...
The storytelling is excellent. The rule “show, don’t tell” is strictly adhered to. And just like the visuals, the plot is loaded with intricate details that contribute to the narrative. For instance, it is revealed that the Abbot was once an illuminator himself, before he became fixated on building the wall, giving a bit of pathos to the otherwise stern character. Other visual elements reinforce the themes of the story, such as Aiden and the Abbots oversized hands which emphasize the handiwork that defines both characters. One particularly intriguing visual element involves the cat, Pangur Ban, who has one blue eye and one green eye, but I’ll leave that to the viewer to interpret.
There is, however, one thing that is starkly absent from the film. For a story set in a monastery and about monks who are transcribing the Gospels, the script rather deftly dances around the issue of Christianity. Not that it is bereft of religion. The characters speak about sacred texts, prayer, miracles, and “turning darkness into light,” but they never get very specific. I’m not suggesting that the film needs to proselytize in any way, but it does seem peculiar that men of faith should speak of it in continually vague terms.

On the other hand, it could also be that the Christian elements were kept vague out of respect. The pagan elements of the film are so literal that making the Christian aspects more overt might be seen as equating the two. In other words, we have a no-win situation. Regardless, it is absolutely worth watching and there is no reason not to. Not only is it a scant 75 minutes, it’s available through all three major streaming services: Hulu (free), Netflix, and Amazon. So give it a look and share your thoughts.

13 comments:

tryanmax said...

NOTE: I wrote this before St. Pat's day, but it's running now. My calendar is running just fine.

AndrewPrice said...

Oops, sorry. I should have changed that. Please do not try to adjust your calendars. :)

K said...

I'm a big fan of this movie as well and was also initially disappointed by the mild contortions to keep any overt Christianity in the background.


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS



In the end, however, the Christian boy defeats the pagan god (which the fairy could not) and the pagan Northsmen grabs the book but can only see the value of the jewels on the cover - leaving the illuminated word as worthless. So there is a validation in the end.

Highly recommended.

tryanmax said...

K, I wouldn't say I was disappointed, but it was like an elephant in the room. The dialogue seemed a little too cautious. Dancing around the "J-word" is one thing, but these monks even danced around the "G-word." Awkward!

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Thanks for the review. I haven't finished this yet, but I have started it and I mostly enjoyed it. It's not really a period or story that appeal to me, but it is well done. The animation is excellent.

tryanmax said...

I agree, it doesn't reach out and grab you like most other cartoons. This one sat in front of me for months before I finally decided to watch it. "Pleasant" is about the best word to describe this film, which is a long way from "exciting" or "moving." It's enjoyable, but not in the same way you normally think of a film as such.

AndrewPrice said...

For me, the real problem is the subject matter. This time period honestly does nothing for me. I had the same problem with Brave. It just doesn't interest me, so I find it very hard to be interested.

ScottDS said...

I'm sorry but I have nothing to contribute, never having seen the film.

It definitely looks interesting, judging from the included images. I wish this Irish animation studio all the best in the future. :-)

tryanmax said...

Scott, you have your homework assignment. ;-)

Tennessee Jed said...

Tryanmax - what a nice review. Thanks!

tryanmax said...

Jed, you're welcome. I try to do 'em right.

Koshcat said...

My kids and I watched this movie last weekend. They watched the whole thing even the 5 year old boy. Great recommendation. Thank you.

tryanmax said...

No problem. It really surprised me, so I had to share.

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