Thursday, 30 March 2017

World Animation: Ireland - The Secret of Kells

It is always interesting to watch films that aim to show the audience different cultures from around the world. People often get sucked into their daily lives and forget that people live differently and believe in different things in other parts the world. Cinema is an art form that allows people to be entertained and simultaneously learn about cultures they might not have known before, "One of the things that's magical about Miyazaki's strange fables is the fact that they are so rooted in Japanese myth and mindset...Tomm Moore accomplishes a similar feat, nailing the peculiarities of Irish culture in a way that puts it on the short list of films that neither stereotypes nor patronises the country," (O'hara, 2010). When a small team of people are dealing with themes that are meant to portray an entire country to an outside audience, it can easily become sensitive and offensive. However, if done right - the results are fascinating.

Fig 1. The Secret of Kells (2009)

In Tomm Moore's 2D animated fantasy film, The Secret of Kells (2009), the Irish culture is explored in various ways including the art direction, religion/folk lore, and history. The animation's tale revolves around one of Ireland's national treasures - Book of Kells, "a medieval illuminated manuscript that ranks among the most important artefacts of Irish civilisation. And it is only fitting that a movie concerned with the power and beauty of drawing - should be so gorgeously and intricately drawn," (Scott, 2010). The Book of Kells is a sacred item among the Irish, so it makes sense that it is the centre of this animation both in terms of the story and style. However, not everyone may know about the Book of Kells despite its importance to the Irish people. Luckily, The Secret of Kells is here to explain it to us, even if it is fantastical and not necessary historically realistic.

The story takes place during the time where Vikings were invading Ireland and various monks were trying to both write and save the Book of Kells from being destroyed. We see this in the film as Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) desperately, albeit rather harshly, tries to build a wall to protect the people living in the Abbey of Kells. Cellach's young nephew, Brendan (Evan McGuire), is curious about what lies outside of the walls, despite the fear that his uncle planted in his mind about the outside world. Brendan remains inside the walls until Brother Aidan (Mick Lally) arrives with a white cat and a much-gossiped about book - the Book of Iona (later renamed the Book of Kells).

Much to Cellach's displeasure, Brendan tries to juggle both building the wall and helping Brother Aidan with completing the Book. With the help of Brother Aidan and a forest fairy named Aisling (Christen Mooney), Brendan begins to mature and show more courage when facing challenges. This can be seen during Brendan's face-off with the evil entity of Crom Cruach to attain The Eye of Crom - an item that is needed to complete the Book. The presence of mischievous yet innocent forest sprite Aisling and the antagonistic Crom Cruach are references to old Irish/Celtic mythology of forest spirits, fairies, and gods.

Fig 2. Viking Invaders

In the middle of this story is also the vicious Viking attack that Cellach feared. The Viking raids are a real and significant part of Irish history and is represented well in The Secret of Kells. While it does not show the violence in a realistic manner, the art style of the film signifies this difference between the Irish and the Vikings well enough, "the art is astonishing - real snippets from the Book are shown, and its motifs and themes echo through the film in tiny details, especially in the scenes where Aisling introduces Brendan to the glories of the forest. In contrast, the Viking invaders are drawn in slashes of smoky black and blood red, quick touches of CG enhancing their sense of invasion, of otherness," (O'hara, 2010). The contrast of the art style and animation methods used for the Vikings truly show the violation and fear the Irish felt during this time.

Even the art style - the way it was both drawn and animated - feels Irish/Medieval. It is clear that it was heavily inspired by the Book of Kells itself, "Tomm Moore's film is a little like an illuminated manuscript in itself. Just as every margin of the Book of Kells is crowded with minute and glorious decorations, so is every shot of the film filled with patterns and borders, arches and frames, do-dads and scrimshaw images. The colours are bold and bright; the drawings are simplified and 2-D. That reflects the creation of the original book in the centuries before the discovery of perspective during the Renaissance," (Ebert, 2010). It is very unique to see this sort of an animation's art style that is inspired by an old text from Medieval times, it helps keep the film feeling unified. 2D animation is often mistakenly assumed to be 'simple', but in fact it can be very intricate (sometimes both intricate and simple at the same time) as we can see in this film. The flat 2D style and lack of perspective in certain overhead shots feels right for a story about the Book of Kells - it matches its source content both in complexity and style.

Fig 3. The Intricate Forest

While The Secret of Kells isn't perfect, it is nice to see the different ways people can weave culture into their stories, film and art. It's only when you start looking deeper into The Secret of Kells and the history surrounding the real Book and the events in Irish history you realise how much it impacted the direction of the movie both in terms of narrative and animation style. It was also interesting to see how religion and beliefs differs in certain parts of the world, such as believing in Christianity while mixing in forest sprites and other mythology. Tomm Moore successfully created an animation that gave the audience a window into the Irish culture without creating a hoard of offended people, which is a triumph in itself. On top of that, he was able to incorporate various aspects of the Book into this film including the story and the art style to create an outcome that is beautiful, entertaining, and informative.

Ebert, R. (2010) The Secret of Kells At: Accessed on: 30/3/2017
Lee, M. (2010) The Secret of Kells, review At: Accessed on:30/3/2017
O'hara, H. (2010) The Secret of Kells Review At: Accessed on: 30/3/2017
Scott, A. (2010) Outside the Abbey's Fortified Walls, a World of Fairy Girls and Beasts At: Accessed on: 30/3/2017

Illustration List:
Figure 1. The Secret of Kells [Poster] At: Accessed on: 30/3/2017
Figure 2. Viking Invaders [Film Still] At: Accessed on: 30/3/2017
Figure 3. The Intricate Forest [Film Still] At: Accessed on: 30/3/2017

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