April 04, 2010

MOVIES: The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey, 2009)

Last year's most surprising Oscar nominee finally gets a full-fledged release, and while the story is a bit on the dull side, the animation is gorgeous, and well worth seeing in a theater.

The story is that of the Book of Kells, the legendary Irish illuminated manuscript -- that is, a book from the days before printing presses, when each page had to be painstakingly lettered and illustrated by hand by talented calligraphers and artists. Our hero is Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), who will eventually be the artist who completes the Book of Kells. But when we meet him, he's just a boy, living at the abbey run by his uncle, the Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), a stern man who is obsessed with fortifying the abbey against the expected attack of the Norsemen. Brother Aidan (Mick Lally) arrives at the abbey from Iona, recently destroyed in a Norse attack, and he carries with him the Book of Iona, which will become the Book of Kells. The other major character is the fairy Aisling (Christen Mooney), who will be Brendan's guide and protector during his forbidden journeys into the forest to gather dye-making supplies for Aidan.

The story never takes off in an interesting way, so the interest here is all in the visuals; fortunately, they are spectacular. There is, of course, a heavy influence from Irish and Celtic art. Look at a snowy battle scene, for instance, where the snowflakes are not the six-pointed crystals we're used to; instead, they are a flurry of various miniature Celtic knots. There's also, I think, the influence of Japanese woodcuts, most obviously in the movement of waves during some brief ocean scenes, but more generally in the way that foreground and background layers interact.

I'd also be willing to bet that the directors are fans of Genndy Tartakovsky's work; I see a lot of his TV series Samurai Jack in the way these relatively flat and angular characters move, and in the way that bad guys are often first seen (or only seen) as looming shadows.

There are beautiful details scattered throughout -- the play of dappled light on Brendan's cloak as he strolls through the forest on a sunny afternoon; the glowing red eyes in the mist that reveal themselves as a menacing pack of wolves; the fluidity of Aisling's long white hair, which serves to emphasize her otherworldliness. The color scheme is dominated by bright greens and earthy browns, which makes the vivid red and white of that snowy battle even more striking.

It's easy to see why the animators who nominated The Secret of Kells were so impressed; it's gorgeous hand-drawn animation with a distinctive style that you'd never mistake for Disney. It's also easy to see why the movie wound up an also-ran in the competition; its flat story keeps from being as rewarding or complete an experience as Up or Coraline, which were the cream of last year's animated crop. Despite that flaw, the look of the movie is so striking and memorable that I'd recommend the movie to any fan of animation.

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