Here we reach the next stop in our international tour of animation with The Secret of Kells from Ireland!
The Secret of Kells is an animated film that tells a fictionalized account of the writing of the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospel books, particularly known for its extravagantly decorated text and artwork, considered a national treasure of Ireland. (That’s the gist of it. There’s a lot more to be said on the influence of book concerning the Insular Illumination movement of art, as well as calligraphy.)
Going into the film, I had no idea of its historical roots. I didn’t even really know what it was about. All I was able to gather from trailers and from word of mouth was that it was an (I assumed) epic fantasy set in medieval Ireland that dealt had elements of both Christian and pagan spirituality. What I got was something quite different.
Okay, not entirely different. This movie does have fantastical elements and explores Christianity and paganism from those times (although not the conflict between them, oddly enough. I mean, I suppose you could interpret the Abbot’s fears of the forest surrounding the abbey to be fears of paganism that lurks outside the sturdy walls of Christianity, but that’s really digging and I’m getting way ahead of myself anyway). However, it’s not an epic fantasy. An epic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that primarily deals with a quest or big world-ending events that take place in a fantastical realm. The Lord of the Rings is probably the most notable example of the epic fantasy genre, which also includes A Song of Ice and Fire (the source material for popular HBO series Game of Thrones). The Secret of Kells, on the other hand, largely takes place in one location and is about the creation of… a book.
I’m not saying that a movie about the creation of a book can never be interesting (this movie proves that statement wrong). I’m just saying that when you are expecting an epic animated fantasy full of life-changing quests that explore unexplored worlds and instead get a much smaller story set in an abbey about writing a book, you have to readjust your expectations somewhat (see Brave for a similar example).
Okay, I suppose I should actually start talking about whether I liked the movie or not. Well… after the first viewing, I really didn’t know if I liked it or not. I honestly had no idea what I thought of the movie. Part of it was I was expecting a different movie, and part of it was it was late and I was half-asleep during a few scenes.I was so unsure about whether I liked the movie or not that I watched it a second time. That went a lot better. I was able to fully cast off my previous expectations and was more able to enjoy the movie for what it was. But did I ulitmately like it? Yeah… I guess I did. I didn’t love it, but I certainly didn’t dislike it either.
Honestly, my principal first reaction to this movie was confusion. Not that the plot was confusing (it wasn’t) or that I didn’t understand the characters (I did). This confusion came from the fact that I didn’t know whose story the filmmaker’s wanted to tell. Actually, that’s not true. I knew that they were telling Brendan’s story. He is obviously the main character. But in addition to being about Brendan, it’s also about his relationships between three other characters: his uncle the Abbot, visitor to the abbey and Illuminator Brother Aidan, and Aisling, a forest spirit who resides in the woods outside the abbey. My confusion came from the lack of connection that I perceived between these three relationships in Brendan’s life, or rather the lack of connection between two of the relationships. To clarify, Brendan’s relationship with his uncle and his relationship with Brother Aidan are connected and have an affect on each other. The Abbot wants Brendan to be practical by helping to fortify the abbey, while Brother Aidan wants Brendan to learn the ways of the Illuminators so that he may finish the Book. There’s clear conflict there that is explored. Then there’s Brendan’s relationship with Aisling and the forest. The Abbot believes that the forest is dangerous and therefore forbids Brendan to go into the forest. When Brendan eventually does, he discovers the wonders and beauty of it, so continually disobeys his uncle by making excursions into the forest. There is also conflict between those relationships. Meanwhile, there is no conflict between the relationships he shares with Brother Aidan and Aisling. Now, since they are essentially two sides of the same coin, there doesn’t really need to be conflict between the two, but they don’t even acknowledge any connection there might be between the two. Brother Aidan never meets or even knows about Aisling, and Aisling knows about Brother Aidan, I’m sure, but she never meets him. It seemed really strange to me that these two sides of the same coin, that are both opposing the Abbot, and are both contributing to Brendan’s authorship of the Book, never acknowledge each other’s existence. It gives off the impression that there are chunks from two different movies put into one movie that almost works.
Actually, a lot of my problems with this movie come from the way that Aisling and the forest are treated in this movie, although probably not for the reasons you think. To me, Aisling’s side of the story seemed incomplete which was really disappointing because that was my favorite part of the movie. Aisling was my favorite character and the forest scenes were the best scenes, in my opinion. My disappointment with this element of the film lies in the feeling that I had that there was no closure regarding Brendan and Aisling’s relationship. The last time that we see Aisling interacting with Brendan in her “human form”, she is helping Brendan to get into Crom Crauch’s cave. At this point, she is seemingly overcome by Crom Crauch’s evil, and then is barely seen again for the rest of the film. We’re given clear indication that she survived, but she has no further scenes with Brendan not in her wolf form and they appear to never speak to each other again. Why? Did Aisling suddenly feel bitter toward him for causing her to be exposed to Crom Crauch? There’s no indication that that is so. She still helps him in later scenes, although in a much more indirect way, remaining in her wolf form when she does. The second time I saw the film, the lack of resolution with Aisling’s story didn’t bother me as much as it did the first time, but I still felt that something was missing from the film and I believe that it was the lack of resolution in that storyline.
Aside from that, I found the “Avatar” elements of the story really really weird as well (Blue people “Avatar”, not awesome kids cartoon “Avatar”). A good chunk of the first act deals with the Abbot being prejudiced and mistrustful towards the forest, a force that he doesn’t understand. He passes these ideas to Brendan, his nephew, who at first follows along with his uncle’s prejudice. But when circumstances cause him to venture out into the forest and he experiences its majesty for himself, he has a change of heart, and eventually defies his uncle by joining in allegiance with the forest. That plot description can be substituted to describe the plots of Avatar, Fern Gully, Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, etc. It’s a plot we’ve seen in so many movies for so many years that many of us (including me) are sick of it. Keep in mind though, this plot line is only a fraction of the film and it doesn’t follow it all the way through, which is a good thing. But for a good twenty minutes, it seemed like the filmmakers were going that route, which immediately put me off because it’s such a familiar story trope. I’m glad they were able to get away from it but it still made most of the first act of the movie feel out of place from the rest of the film.
So, what did I like in this movie? Overall, I liked the animation. It reminded me a lot of old Cartoon Network shows from the late-90’s, at least in the character design. It was interesting to see that style of design mixed with the very intricate circular design as found in the actual Book of Kells, because overall, the character design is quite simple. The contrast brought out the intricacies of the older art style and was used very creatively. Probably the highlight of the film (aside from Aisling and any scene she’s in) was Brendan’s battle with Crom Crauch, which was incredibly well-realized and superbly executed. The performances were very good all-around as well. It was nice to see an over-protective guardian be quiet for once. I don’t think the Abbot raised his voice significantly at any point during the film and he didn’t need to. He carried the emotion of his words in the intensity of his voice rather than his volume, which was incredibly refreshing.
Now the hard part. My overall opinion about this movie has flip-flopped constantly depending on what part of the movie I’m thinking about. When I think about the history and culture that the film draws from, the animation, Aisling, the relationships between the characters, I love the movie. When I think about the “Avatar”-esque first act, the sometimes jarring shifts in tone, and the seemingly unresolved Aisling story, I dislike the movie. Honestly, I think most people will really dig this movie and I recommend that everyone see it. Its good points far outweigh its bad points and it’s a really fantastic insight into a history and culture that most people are unfamiliar with. In addition to that, I seriously doubt that most people will be bothered by the problems I had with the film. For me, however, the faults that I mentioned had the unfortunate effect of distancing me emotionally from the film. And in a film like this where complete emotional investment is required, it didn’t completely work for me.
Final Rating: 7/10
One final note: I believe this is the third animated film that Tyler has given me with an unforgettable silent animated animal performance. First, there was the dog from Triplets of Belleville, then the tiny dog from Howl’s Moving Castle, and now Pangur Ban the cat. I’m starting to sense a pattern!
We are almost done with our International Tour of Animation, having started in France, then traveling to Japan, then just recently to Ireland. Our final destination, in this Tour of Animation, shall take us to the far out reaches of SPAAAAAAAAAAACE!!! Until then!