Friday, September 23, 2011

The Secret of Kells (2009)
IRELAND/ FRANCE/ BELGIUM --- animation/ fantasy

Dir: Tomm Moore

A group of talented animators presented this Oscar nominated animated fantasy film from Ireland, spotlighting the creation of the Book of Kells. The "Book of Kells" is basically an illustrated interrpretation (Insular Art) of the Four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. John) from the Christian Bible. They are very old, dating back to the 8th century, and were painstakingly designed with various forms of ink, precious stones, and gold.

Though fictionalized, the film tells the story fairly close to the historical legend, being set in middle ages of Ireland, as our young protagonist, Brendan, is an apprentice in an Abbey. The monks regale young Brendan with tales of the "magical" book of Iona, as he wishes himself to be an illuminator. As the multi cultural group of monks await the arrival of a brother Aidan of the island Iona. He is an illuminator, who has constructed a book of kells called "The Book of Iona". When the island of Iona was attacked by a band of ravaging vikings, Aidan had to protect the book from being destroyed, and fled the island with his white cat Pangur Bán. Meanwhile, Brendan's uncle, Abbott Cellach, has put all effort into the building of a wall to protect the Kells from the inevitable invasion of the vikings. If you want to see a truly graphic form of these kinds of invasions, watch Andrei Tarkovsky's film "Andrei Rublev".

Upon Aidan's arrival (who looks like a cross between Willie Nelson and George Carlin), Brendan inquires him of the book of Iona. When Abbott Cellach spirits Aidan away to work on the wall, he's tasked with feeding Pangur Bán. Brendan, however, accidentally overhears Cellach and Aidan in a heated discussion about the wall, in which Aidan admits the best solution when the Vikings get there, is to run. Abbott Cellach is determined to stand by the fortified Kells, and leaves Aidan to his illuminating. When Aidan returns to the scriptorium, he tasks Brendan with finding gall nuts for ink in the wilderness. Brendan gladly takes Pangur Bán along on his search.

Arriving alone in the woods, he finds himself surrounded by wolves, and is soon rescued by a forest spirit. She appears first as a white wolf, then as young girl named Aisling (or Ashley). Brendan tells her he's only there to find these gall nuts for ink, and she makes a deal to show him where to find them if he promises to never return. He agrees, and she guides him to what he needs. Before leaving, he encounters the Celtic pagan deity Crom Cruach, which puts fear into even Aisling. When he returns to the scriptorium with brother Aidan, he finds that Abbott Cellach has learned of his disappearing into the forest and forbids him from leaving the confines of Abbey Kells. Even still, Aidan teaches Brendan illumination, and they continue to work on the book until they come to the Chi-Rho page. Aidan confides in Brendan he needs his help in doing this page as he's getting too old to construct it himself, and it can only be done through the use of a crystal.

He also tells him that the crystal was the eye of a pagan deity found in one of their caves. Brendan, having already found Crom Cruach assures Aidan he can get another crystal. In the meantime, we see that the vikings are certainly on their way. That night, Brendan sneaks out of the Abbey again, and meets Aisling in the forest. She pleads with him not to confront the deity, and reveals that it was Crom Cruach who destroyed her people. Brendan goes forth anyway, in what appears to be more of a spiritual battle against the deity for the crystal. This time when he returns to the Abbey, Abbott Cellach has locks Brendan up in a dungeon, and only Aisling can help him escape before the immenent vikings invade.

"The Secret of the Kells" is a visually arresting film, but the story leaves you with much to be desired. Gotta admit the animators missed the mark with the blatant Negro cariacture of one of the monks. I will give them a very slight advocation by the possibility they were simply ignorant of what offense this would take in other countries. I also note that in the special features, they show an early version of the character which is less abrasive, but whatever. The film is certainly not perfect. The direction wasn't the greatest, as the characters actions didn't always seem to match the vocal performance. Also, I'm still unsure how Brendan could tell Aisling that Crom Cruach was an imaginary pagan diety, but yet he claims she is one as well earlier.

Steeped in a profound religious tradition, but bathed in stunning visual delights, "The Secret of Kells" weaves a tale of both faith and Celtic mythology. Aidan's white cat with one eye green and the other blue is based on a real life cat named Pangur Bán (which is translated "whiter than white"; a Christian reference), of which a poem was written by an anonymous monk in the 9th century. Aisling and Crom Cruach are loosely based on Celtic mythological deities. Aisling is based on Tuatha Dé Danann translated as "peoples of the goddess Danu". The film is an interesting tame children's story, but lacks the deep insight or storytelling to keep the interest of the adult audience. I felt the ending left me hanging somewhat.