Now after so much time alotted to controversial and more "adult" themed movies, here's something for "the kids". I say in quotes as it should really mean, for "the kids" in us all, for this delightful animated feature from Ireland.
Rare do we, at least in the USA, get to see Irish animated features. They aren't that common, are they? I haven't done my research, I'll admit, but it's hard for me to think of many independently animated films that come out of the Emerald Isle. This alone would put Tomm Moore's debut(!) feature film (first time directing anything actually) into a unique place in modern cinema. But it's also a ravishingly and unusually beautiful film to look at. You get lost in the design of the movie, how shapes and characters are drawn in some contours like we've yet to see quite like this. It's a tale of magic and darkness, light and gloom, and the kind of high hopes, dreary outcome but awe-inspiring sense of place that comes with the Irish in their folks tales and, sometimes, mystical ways.
The story is a bit thin, so the short of it is that at an outpost called Kells an Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) stubbornly puts up a wall around the village to ward off from invaders, while mentoring his young apprentice Abbot Brendan. But Brendan gets intrigued to go outside of the walls, and meets a young forest sprite (or what comes close to it I guess) named Aisling (though sounds like Ashley), who has run of the forest. Aisling, who has a pale white face and long white hair but speaks like a girly Disney character (though sans the sass, more like a 1950's Disney character), intrigues Brendan enough to go back and get cracking with an older monk on writing a book. How he makes the book is less interesting than how it looks; it's lots of crazy shapes, geometric figures that entrance the mind and bedazzle the senses, so much so that others who are working on the wall stop what they're doing to stare as young Brendan goes on working.
Okay, so not totally thin, but it's like a fairy tale, done with respect to children and to adults. When the story gets dark, it doesn't pussyfoot around; Brendan has to go into one of those dark-deep-caves that always come about in these stories to face a demon of some sort (I forget the name now, they sometimes blend together in these films), and it's the shape of a black, demented ringwork who keeps munching at Brendan in a frantic struggle, until the young guy pulls free for the object he came for (one of those geometric shapes he needs to continue his book). The worm goes on to eat itself to death, or what might come close to death. No one weeps for it, since it's a black and gnarly looking thing surrounded by darkness- the path to it is like falling down a rabbit hole, though much easier for Brendan to get out- but it's one of the more intensely frightening visions: weird, mean, and not totally altogether real-looking. It's something of pure dark fantasy.
As is much of the rest of the film. If it comes closest to anything it's two things: the animation of Gendy Tartakovsky, who made his name with kid's shows (The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter's Lab) but also proved himself to know the prequels better than Lucas with his Clone Wars animated series, and Richard Williams, who made The Prince and the Cobbler (the rough cut, not the theatrical cut) into such a cornucopia of surreal delights that could still be accessible for most viewers. The Secret of Kells follows in traditions of animations that aren't beholden to being entirely realistic, and yet we feel for these characters in their struggles against evil and in unlocking obscure secrets.
Tomm Moore and his co-director know how to make imagination seem fantastical but meaning something too. His characters are the sort you'd find more in illustrated books for children as opposed to the usual animated film, certainly nowadays when a good hand-drawn feature is harder to come by than an 8-track. This doesn't mean Moore uses just that; the backgrounds are all CGI, but woven into the foreground with ease. I'm sorry to use this word (forgive the pretension in advance), but it's a tapestry of old-style and new-style animation, and it's sometimes hard to tell which is what.
If I loved the look of the film, and how characters could be light and fun like Aisley and the cat and when she turns to the wolf, then I also loved when it got dramatic in the climax where the invasion happens. Less interesting is some of the elements in the plot itself; the book seems to be a MacGuffin for the sake of the mystical stuff of Kells, and maybe all for the better since it could have easily gone further into its more obvious metaphor, religion and belief specifically with Christianity (think about it, a book that restores hope in all humanity? get outta town).
The Secret of Kells has the wonder of pure visual delight; one hasn't seen something quite like it, despite its familiarity, and its warmth with the characters is what shines through. It can't help since it's a fairy tale to have some one-note characters, such as Brendan Gleeson's Abbot who is all the same "Don't go outside OR ELSE!" through the film until near the end. But that can be forgiven for its spectacle and sophistication in its design, for the gobsmackingly-must-own-this-immediately Celctic musical score, and its ultimately positive message for kids that doesn't feel hackneyed. If you're an adult reading this it's just the thing to get your kids past the pop-culture-engorged feasts of Dreamworks animated pics, or other less-inspired CGI fare.