May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
March 3, 2010
This year’s Best Animated Feature competition features a pretty incredible — and remarkably diverse — lineup, easily the best we’ve seen in the award’s nine-year history. The competition is so strong that the Academy can snub even Miyazaki and make a decent case for it: Two brilliant though entirely dissimilar stop-motion features, one shining example of Pixar at its best, one hand-drawn Disney revival film and The Secret of Kells, which came as a surprise to most everyone when it appeared last month among the nominees. It’s played a couple children’s festivals here in the US since its 2008 Irish release and had the usual one-week qualifying run in Burbank last December, but most Americans couldn’t have seen it even if they’d wanted to.
Well, trust me. You want to.
The Secret of Kells is a movie full to bursting with the pure potential of animation, an aesthetic experience so impeccably designed that style and substance are indistinguishable. The obvious of source of inspiration is the titular Book of Kells, a medieval Irish illuminated manuscript of the four gospels, and it’s honestly overwhelming to catalogue the various ways in which the book’s celtic knots, symbols and even narrative panelling inform the film’s design.
Perhaps the best example comes midway through the film, when Brendan, the film’s protagonist, climbs his way through the forest outside of Kells, and the environment abstracts itself into a kind of decorative motif, with branches twisting around like frames and creatures dotting the landscape with arabesque precision. Not only is it impressive, it’s beautiful, achingly so, and I admit my poor graphic designer’s eyes were misty. The characters themselves, while not an exact adaptation of the illuminators’ style, are as well-suited to flattened, abstract compositions as they are to fully dimensional environments, no small feat. It’s part of the animators’ larger attention to shapes and spaces, another nod to their source material: trees grow in interlocking patterns, and the monks gather together in groups that piece together their various exaggerated shapes like a puzzle. The animators’ repurposing of the illuminators’ art suggests that the only way to really understand their world is through the art they gave us, which reinforces the film’s conviction that art is what illuminates and interprets our world.
The design is integral to the film’s other themes as well. It codes the film’s battle between civilization and barbarism not simply as might versus right, but as beauty versus ugliness, order versus chaos and especially organic versus sterile. The Book of Kells, and hence the kind of civilization it represents, detailed and full of natural curves and patterns. The film’s icons of destruction — both the northmen and the “dark one” — are rendered in straight, harsh geometries, silhouettes and awkward scribble.
The story itself, admittedly, is less sublime: here’s a plucky young apprentice hero defying authority to do what’s right, develop his full potential and defeat the forces of darkness. But the whole affair is more complicated than the typical anti-authoritarian (and occasionally anti-religious) vindication in which such films normally indulge. The abbot, for all his stereotypical severity, has a compelling reason for his concerns — he wants to ensure Kells is well-defended against the encroaching hordes of “northmen” who are ravaging Ireland. He works nobly and sacrificially on behalf of both his community, and in the end both he and Brendan contribute, in their opposing ways, to the preservation of Irish civilization, though the historical facts of the situation necessitate that their victories be small. Ultimately, the film wants to suggest that survival depends not on shutting out the outside world — hence its depiction of the abbot’s plans in those harsh geometries mentioned above. Rather, survival comes from enlightening the outside world, building connections and sharing hope, which is at least true to the spirit of the medieval monastery. The literal specificity of the situation — this book is more important those walls — at least keeps the whole thing from devolving into a collection of truisms.
More subtle is the film’s treatment of its necessarily religious concerns. The actual contents of the Book of Kells, the gospels, are never made explicit — at best the film gives us Brother Aidann saying that the contents must be transmitted “so that the people may have hope in these dark times.” But the monks and the abbey are recognizably Christian, with attendant crosses and chapels, prayers and sacred music. That creates some tension, though not as much as you’d suspect, given that much of the plot hinges on the faerie world of the outside forest. Interestingly, Brendan believes with no hesitation in faeries, but is deeply the skeptical about Crom Cruach, a kind of dark god that haunts the forest.
The incorporation and demonization of folk belief are both as old as the Christian faith, and it’s not difficult to imagine that for many of the monks of medieval Ireland, there was no serious dissonance between the trinitarian God they worshipped and the faeries outside the abbey walls. And while there’s no explicitly Lewisian baptizing of the pagan myths, the film aesthetically ties the two, not just in making the natural world mirror the illuminated manuscript or vice versa but also by countless small details, working trinitarian symbols into the forest trees and crosses in the place of snowflakes, descending gently onto the earth. Aisling, Brendan’s fairy friend, is as delightful a pagan creature as you’re likely to meet, but she sides herself quite clearly with Kells and its mission. You can interpret that as you wish — softening the Book of Kells into a syncretistic gaelic mythology or trumpeting the divine spirit that animates the world. But in this ambiguity the film at least allows for the give-and-take that must have been going on within the Irish soul. That it does this largely through aesthetic choices — this film is all aesthetic choices — is a matter of no small commendation.
Ultimately, inasmuch as the Oscar for Best Animated Feature is an award for the best film that happens to animated, The Secret of Kells likely stands no chance. Up is the obvious winner. It’s the better film, with narrative nuance that Kells can’t muster. But The Secret of Kells is perhaps the best animated film of the year qua animation, the film whose virtues are most clearly tied to animation and the limitless possibilities therein. The American distributor plans to roll it out slowly over the next few months, beginning this weekend in New York and continuing the 19th in Boston. If you get a chance to see it in theaters, take it. It’s worth the effort.