The Secret of Kells (2009) Dir. Tomm Moore

Got to see some more foreign animation this past weekend.  This time it was Ireland’s first animated feature, The Secret of Kells.  I have to say I found this movie to be pretty interesting.  The hardest part for me was trying to follow the folklore myths the story was based on, where I had some trouble remembering names and following which deadly creature was which.  But it didn’t stop my enjoyment of the film, which not only has a lot of adult themes in the guise of a children‘s story, but the film itself goes to some wicked dark places, and its full of scary, startling imagery. 

The story follows a young boy named Brenden (a kind of monk in training) living in an outpost that has to protect itself from these dark viking/barbarians.  Brenden‘s Uncle Abbot Celloch, who is the leader of the outpost, is pretty dead serious and always worried that the outpost will not stay fortified enough to withstand an attack.  In the meantime an older man, Aiden, shows up with a magic unfinished book called The Book of Kells, which is supposed to hold a secret wisdom and power.  To complete the book, Brenden is sent into the dark enchanted forest to find special kind of berries that can only be used as ink for the bookIn the woods he meets a magical young wolf-girl named Aisling who helps him along.  

 There’s a lot more that happens, but one of the problems with the movie is that at times the story gets a little convoluted, as if its packing too much in at once when it probably needs to break things down in a more simple way.  I don’t mean dumbing it down, because foreign animation tends to lean on more sophisticated storytelling techniques, but it would have helped to clarify a few things.  I suppose if you know the Irish legends the story is based on its easier to follow,  but it’s a little hard to know what the importance of The Book of Kells is and how certain elements play into the story.  It’s worthwhile to watch though just because the film goes to a few dark frightening places, such as the terrifying vikings that attack the outpost at the end of the film.  My favorite image was when Brendan awakens the dark creature in the woods, and somehow it causes these black vines to take over Aisling‘s body, making her face grotesque and distorted.  It was really cool stuff, unlike much of what you’d see in an American film.  The other issue is that the pacing of the film is a little too up and down at times, especially in the beginning.  There are a few kind of slapstick kind of moments in the beginning of the film when first introducing Brenden and some of the other monks.  It’s a little odd because the film sets up these comic moments like it’s your typical Disney film, but the obnoxious humor quickly dissipates (thankfully) when the story takes off, and it actually began to take itself more seriously.  Some of the more comic monk characters in the story felt like they were underutilized, where they were set up to be funny characters, but not really given much to do.  

As far as the visual style and animation goes, it has its ups and downs as well.  I’ll say right away, the look of the film is just mindblowingly fantastic.  It makes itself as a kind of living tapestry, and the layouts in many cases have no perspective, but it gives the film a unique visual style all its own.  With the animation however it‘s a little different.  Sometimes its well done, but at other times, the acting of the characters gets a little to cliche, with characters going into stock animation poses.  The film seems to attempt doing full animation, but it jumps around getting a little too limited in places, sometimes with the animation jumping from 2’s to 4’s.  It’s a little distracting.  But there are times where its done very well and it looks great.  The other problem I had with the visuals was the tendency to mash in a bit of the cartoony Disney style.  It’s not always obvious, but many of the characters had facial features that were directly lifted from styles played in Disney charactersIn a way, I wish the film could have broken away from that more like A Cat In Paris, because the Disney look also influences the animation, which is one of the reasons I felt it gets into too many stock acting choices.  I don’t know what the research into other animated films was from this movie, but if their choice was to mix a kind of Disney look with medieval style, a film to look at that makes it work probably would have been Sleeping Beauty.  The Secret of Kells is a little more abstract in its look of course, but it reminded me most of the look of Sleeping Beauty in what it was trying to attempt with the marriage of animation and a medieval style.  But while the techniques used might have a few flaws, it didn’t distract me that much, and I was pretty engaged in the story all the way through.  

If you have Netflix and would like to check out The Secret of Kells and A Cat In Paris, both of them are on Instant Watch.  They are two very different and unique animated films, unlike much of what you would see in the mainstream.  They are both enjoyable, and I recommend anyone to check them out.   


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