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I got to see the wonderful Irish-Belgian-French co-production The Secret of Kells this evening. I'd been impressed by the trailer when I saw it a few months ago, and the film didn't disappoint. Kells stands right up there with the films of Michel Ocelot and The Triplets of Belleville in leading today's animated foreign feature renaissance. So many great animated features have come out of Europe & nearby countries in the last few years. (though I'm thrilled to finally be able to see My Dog Tulip at the VIFF in a few weeks)
It's pretty amazing that they could make a film whose every shot is so unflaggingly inventive and beautiful and stylistically unified. The whole film is pure stylization. The characters are each drawn in their own bold shapes, and are identifiable by silhouette, which was presumably intentional, that being one of the mantras of western animation. I admired how the lines with which each character is drawn cleverly fold into one another in different configurations depending on which way the character is standing or looking. Different characters have different modes of movement, such as the little girl who zips across the screen, popping up in unexpected places, and especially the wolves, whose movement is very interesting and one of the best examples of the uniquely stylized movement matched to the inventively stylized designs in this film.
Kells has that whole hyperstylized retro UPA look that seems so popular today in the west, but it manages to carve out its own place that seems distinct. The film is an animated interpretation of the tribulations surrounding the creation of the Book of Kells, an unfinished 8th century manuscript legendary for its lushly intricate ornamental art. The strong visuals seem to be inspired by the look of the art in the Book of Kells, skilfully adapting the spirit of this ancient stylization into a newer kind of stylization that appeals to today's sensibilities. In spirit, the film kind reminds me of The Golden Bird, with its flat layouts, geometrically stylized characters and colorful byzantine backgrounds.
The compositions are very striking and beautiful at a basic level, with trees in the forest all aligned symmetrically and their branches wound up into Celtic knots and so on. The screen is usually laid out in a flat style reflecting the spirit of the original manuscripts, similar to the look of Kirikou or Azur et Asmar. The choreography of the movement of the characters through these compositions is quite ingenious. It's like they're constantly shifting perspectives on you, coming up with creative new ways for the characters to move through the environs. In that sense it kind of reminded me of The Thief and the Cobbler.
Representative of this is a shot in which a character is climbing a tree. The leaves form a sort of line that divides the screen into two. The character climbs up across the left half, then passes under the line, and in the right half the perspective is suddenly different, as if they were two distinct shots. It's unexpected and subtly done and has a marvelous effect, like a constantly shifting and shimmering optical illusion. So much thought was put into coming up with a variety of ideas to make each shot interesting like this. It's not just the animation and art that are stylized - the directing is too. The 10 years the film was in planning and actual production show up in the film's laboriously conceived and painstakingly executed visual schemes.
I appreciate that the story has multiple levels of meaning in spite of its simplicity. The story of artists in ancient times faced with the spiritual conflict of whether to choose art or survival in the face of an apocalypse-like wave of merciless invaders raining death and destruction on the land and people brings to mind Andrei Roublev. The climax of the film is quite interesting in that there is no victory. There's disaster, and a slow recovery from that disaster, without any sort of catharsis or triumph. The emotional climax doesn't arrive upon a shield bearing a victorious protagonist. The most powerful moment in the film is the very antithesis of bombastic triumph - it's the painfully ironic moment of spiritual capitulation when the abbot realizes that the art he had derided as futile to human well-being would in the long term be more permanent and nourishing than any sustenance of the flesh. I think Kells is admirable for being a family film that presents a complex message about the importance of art to humanity.
The film has strength because it was made by a group of talented artists with something to express, not just churned out by a corporation according to a profit formula. It's not patterned after the 'family feature' template; it carves out its own visual ethos, directing style and narrative vector. The one song there is isn't a Broadway number; it's low key, tastefully handled, even somber. Kells is an example of all-ages animated filmmaking done right.
Kells kicked off the Spark Animation '09 festival here in Vancouver, so it was preceded by an industry mixer. There's nothing more annoying than being in a room where everybody knows everybody else except you. I spent the whole time getting out of people's way. Lesson learned: Misanthropy and mixers don't mix.