Monday, May 30, 2011

Brendan and the Secret of Kells

The Secret of Kells is an Irish animated film. I had the pleasure of viewing it last summer during the California State Summer School for the Arts. The primary charm of the film is its light-hearted, imaginative quality, which is greatly due to the film's young main characters. Brendan, the young monk, and Aisling, the ghost girl, were exceedingly endearing for their innocence and bravery and other typically heroic qualities. Brendan, the protagonist, was not a particularly interesting character, but he was a sympathetic hero and served the plot-line effectively. Aisling, however, was captivating for her animalistic mannerisms and whispering, crackling voice . . . and then you realize she's dead.

Speaking of terrifying, Brendan’s uncle, the Abbot, is terrifying, and he was an excellent antagonist. He towers over the rest of the film’s cast, glowering with bulging blue eyes and a mysterious scar running down his face, lording over the other monks. What makes him all the more formidable as a villain, however, is that he is truly well-intentioned. There is nothing more unnerving than an antagonist who is trying to serve the greater good—it makes you doubt the moral integrity of the hero, and it undermines the protagonist’s morale, making him or her appear feeble and foolish. Just think about Ozymandias from Watchmen, Saruman from Lord of the Rings, or even the witch from Disney’s Tangled--who, while actually fostering Rapunzel for selfish reasons, made the heroine believe otherwise. “Greater Good Villains,” I feel, far surpass their more blatantly malignant peers. The Abbot is precisely such a villain, and I was very impressed.

One cannot help but commiserate with the Abbot, making the suspense created by Brendan disobeying his commands all the more intense. The Abbot, only desiring to protect the monks of his Abbey,  is the sole practical soul amongst a colony of idealists. While the other monks focus on art and enlightenment, the Abbot strives to build walls to protect his careless companions and their knowledge from the incoming viking hordes. Nevertheless, the man is callous and cruel and cold, as a villain should be. He locks his nephew in a dungeon, and responds to challenges made to his authority with physical intimidation. Between the Abbot's complexities and Aisling's dark back-story, The Secret of Kells has a surprisingly intriguing group of characters.

The cartooning style was very simplistic, but very effective. It gave the movie a light, airy feel, which I found conducive to the film’s innocent perspective, and very mythical/spiritual themes. The only thing that ever bothered me artistically about the film were the backgrounds. Sometimes they were downright cubistic—in that the animators tried to portray a 3D environment using only a one dimensional plane. Often I would wonder where, exactly, the characters were, or how the characters managed to navigate themselves through their Picasso-esque world. But I won’t condemn the backgrounds because, looking back, I see that the one dimensional, excessively simple settings were meant to reflect the Celtic art style of the time period the film is meant to represent. (During the rise of Christianity and the fall of Paganism in Europe—the time that yielded some of the West’s most treasured mythologies, such as the Arthurian legends.) The backgrounds, therefore, mirror the artistry Brendan must master in order to complete the illustrations of the Book of Kell.

Recommendations: I recommend this film to all artists and authors, as this movie is a homage to the powers of their crafts. The film is a celebration of books leading the way to enlightenment, thereby overcoming fear and hate and prejudice.

One Last Note: I watched the film with approximately 20 other students at CSSSA, and most of us were confused over the Book of Kell itself, although we hazarded that the book was a Bible of some sort. I suspect that European audiences, more familiar with the history of Christianity’s spread, were not so mystified, as the book is not fictional, but a Gospel manuscript book made by Celtic monks ca. 800 (approximately). The struggles of the monks to protect the book are based off fact, although the characters are the creation of the film’s director and animators. I highly encourage those who see the movie to read up on the fascinating history of the actual Book of Kell afterward!