Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Secret of Kells (2009)

In Disney's 1959 adaptation of Sleeping Beauty, a large emphasis was put on the art direction of the movie. The movie differed from the typical Disney house style, instead taking great inspiration from medieval art and tapestries. It was far more stylized, with a much sharper look when compared to, say, Cinderella. The movie is considered to be a classic of animation today, but at the time of the film's release it was a commercial failure. Disney wouldn't go back to making fairy tales for the big screen until The Little Mermaid.

Ever since then, American theatrical animation has looked kinda samey. Almost across the board animated features have roughly the same art style as everything that came before it. They don't look bad or anything, but it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate movies from studio to studio. There's a reason you grandma thinks every computer animated movie comes from Pixar; it's because nobody wants to deviate too far from the norm. Studios know that audiences expect their movies to look a certain way and straying from that path risks alienating them.

The Secret of Kells, a 2009 Irish-French-Belgian co-production, has much more in common with Sleeping Beauty then it does with most modern animated features. It's also kind of it's antithesis. Where Sleeping Beauty focuses on the more ornate aspects of medieval times (castles, princes and princesses, gigantic feasts), The Secret of Kells is much more interested in the natural, with a rather bitter view on the towers and walls Sleeping Beauty fetishized.

In terms of story or plot, The Secret of Kells isn't very notable. There's a Pan's Labyrinth quality to it, though much more slight. Brendan is a little brother at the Abbey of Kells in the eighth century, where his uncle is the Abbot. The Abbot is building a wall around the abbey to protect them from the vikings, who are in their peak plundering stages. One day Brother Aiden, a refugee from the recently sacked island of Iona, comes to the abbey, bringing with him the Book of Kells. Of course it's not called that yet. Brendan, wanting to help Aiden despite his uncle's protests, goes beyond the wall and into the forest to get some berries needed for ink. Along the way he meets Aisling, a fairy who lives in the woods. Thus begins an adventure involving books, magic, and brutal slaughter at the hands of the Norsemen. 

Like I said, the story is pretty route, a standard hero journey straight out of Joseph Campbell. The movie isn't about that though. It's all about the art, and by god does it show because this is an absolutely beautiful movie to look at. It's not afraid to radically change perspective or style on a hairpin. Taking inspiration from the actual Books of Kells, every frame of this movie is incredibly detail oriented. I could just pause at random and look at the backgrounds for hours. Interestingly, and I don't know if this was intentional or just me looking at it weird, it seems to flow in a way that's atypical of most movies. It plays out on screen in a way that reminds me of a Miyazaki movie.

The film seems to draw inspiration from Miyazaki, at least it terms of theme. While it's depictions of good and evil are far more black and white then any of the Japanese director's work, it has a similar view on the natural world. The forest is depicted as a place of great power, wonderful and dangerous at the same time. You can see it's appeal to Brendan and why it terrifies the Abbot at the same time. It's always nice to see when a movie aimed at children plays around with moral ambiguity. I think it's something that too few filmmakers are afraid to go for, but the results are always fascinating and often poignant.

However, asides from hints here and there, the movie's world is one of black and white. The vikings are evil, so evil that they don't even have faces or any characteristic other then murder and gold. That's fine, but I wish the movie had connected Brendan's world in the forest with the Abbot's world just a little more. There's lots of symbolism and parallels, but some of it feels like it could have been thought through a little more. The characters are the same too. Only the Abbot, voiced by the amazing Brendan Gleeson, has a real arc. The rest feel a bit too flat, and Brendan occasionally goes into full moppet territory. Aisling is probably the most interesting of them all, largely because so much about her is a mystery.

The more I write about it, the more ambivalent towards the movie I am. It's gorgeous to look at, and is certainly enjoyable to watch, but it's very slight and I don't know if it would hold up too well to multiple viewings. On the Wicker Scale it's erring on the side of good, but not blowing away anybody's expectations.

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