Friday, February 5, 2010
The Secret of Kells ***
Director: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey
There was a time when hand drawn animation had the power to take our breath away and remind us of the lengthy artistic history encompassed in pen, ink and paper.
Disney once was a master of this craft with every new movie becoming a landmark of beauty and perpetuation of creative power.
As the years went by the studio reduced its interest in pushing itself and settled for a definite animation style. Other studios could've taken advantage of this opportunity to pave their own ways but chose to imitate Disney animation.
With the advent of computers and CGI animation audiences all but gave their backs to hand drawn animation and succumbed to the real qualities and three dimensions that could be achieved with this technology.
As this kind of animation reaches its own limits (the biggest difference between movies of this kind now lies in the screenplays) a little gem comes along to remind us that sometimes the greatest things come from our past.
In "The Secret of Kells" directors Moore and Twomey take us to the Middle Ages to meet Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) a little boy living inside the Abbey of Kells with his uncle, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson).
As the abbot oversees the construction of a fortified wall to protect them from Vikings, Brendan, who has never left the Abbey or the village around it, dreams of what lies beyond the great forests.
He gets his thrills from stories he hears from the other monks. He suddenly sees the possibility to satiate his thirst for knowledge with the arrival of Brother Aidan (Mick Lally) a monk from the Ilsand of Iona carrying with him an unfinished book of which powers have been talked about for ages.
While the Abbey forbids his nephew from getting involved with Aidan, Brendan disobeys enthralled by the temptation of creation. Based on the legends surrounding the creation of the legendary Book of Kells, the filmmakers come up with a beautiful, simple metaphor to narrate the way in which knowledge has always been a threat.
Brendan becomes the symbol of enlightenment fighting the dark forces of barbarians and the Church itself.
While the movie makes for a lovely crash course of Midle Ages' history it must be said that its ideas-perhaps because they're addressed to children-are filtered into simple ways, such that the evil Vikings become amorphous figures with horns and the Church's interest in keeping the masses ignorant is processed as extreme paternal worry on part of the Abbey towards Brendan.
Therefore the characters might not be that developed and mature, but the movie more than makes up for it with its relentless aesthetic power.
The character animation perhaps recalls the style of Craig McCracken (just to mention a contemporary animator) with the use of simple lines and elementary figures to create each feature.
The animation for the characters is particularly effective. The Abbot for example is drawn with sturdy, severe lines that evoke his firmness, while Brendan is made out of circles that seem to juggle upon each other as the character moves.
One of the most beautiful creations is the fairy Aisling (voiced by Christen Mooney) a pale impish being that seems to materialize out of nowhere in every scene she's featured, she's drawn with long curves that give the impression of a misty aftereffect.
The expressionist animation does much more for each character than any line of dialogue can and sometimes the filmmakers seem to forget this, stuffing the plot with Celtic legends and unnecessary conversations.
For more serious film buffs and art lovers the most appealing element in "The Secret of Kells", might not be its exploration of what brought forth Illumination theoretically, but what graphic arts contributed when words were such a luxury.
The central Book of Kells is among the most famous versions of the gospels before Gutenberg and the film sometimes feels like watching Medieval arts spring to life.
More than that, the movie is done mixing animation styles that not only look magnificent put together but might very well narrate a history of art.
From Mayan creatures with feathers and child like chalk drawings that function as maps, to Medieval tableaux combined with Gothic frames and Chinese shadow theater.
The lavish backgrounds done in pale watercolors and gold motives recall Klimt's greatest work and by the time the animators let us see the influence the Russian Soyuzdetmultfilm-Studio has on their work, we will probably be enthralled by the way they borrow from Eisenstein and Tarkovsky to frame each scene.
"The Secret of Kells", like the best of books, hypnotizes us with every turn of the page and its beauty is such that the lack of a better story, is minimized by the jaw-dropping marvel of its history.