Dark animation: ‘The Secret of Kells’

Everyone is familiar with 2D animation: it was the form of animation that made up the entire Disney Renaissance that we all grew up with. And while the animation on its own is great to see, “The Secret of Kells” from the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon takes it to a completely different level. The movie’s story is based on the tale of origin for the book itself. The animation style follows intricate designs and patterns, much like the actual book of Kells, which is an illuminated gospel book containing the most delicate and detailed forms of calligraphy and imagery that could be given to a Bible.

I never saw this movie in theaters, as there were never any theater releases in the United States. I heard about it through the ravings of online fans, who kept talking about how the movie was fantastic and something that everyone should see. I looked up the trailer online and from there I was eager to see the actual film.

The animation style is what initially caught my eye. Each character seems to be designed in a geometrical way, in that every curve and slope and line is perfect and mathematically correct. There are also incredibly small details in the design of the background and the surroundings that are easy to miss the first time around such as the hidden celtic knot designs of the tree branches, and the careful flight patterns of honey bees.

The design of the movie is very unique, and unlike anything I’ve seen from any American animators. And I’m not the only one that noticed. The film was incredibly well received, gifted with eight different animation awards from 2008 to 2010. It was nominated for five more from 2009 and 2010. The movie director, Tomm Moore, told Animation World Network that the animation style was influenced by the works of Richard Williams “The Thief and The Cobbler,” Genndy Tartakovsky’s “Samurai Jack” series, Disney’s “Mulan,” and the works of Hayao Miyazaki’s “My Neighbor Totoro,” all of whom were well received for their work in animation.

The movie soundtrack is just as unique as the animation style. The ambient songs have many light and gentle tunes that evoke images of Ireland and its beautiful countryside, while also containing songs that have deep pounding drums that seem to match up with a heartbeat for the more intense scenes. The music was done by Bruno Coulais, whose previous work includes movies such as “Coraline,” and by Kíla, an Irish folk music group. Their collaborated efforts create music that fits every scene perfectly, and help to keep the audience even more entertained as they drink in the incredible visuals of the film’s animation. Their work on my favorite track, called “Pangur Ban” is a dreamy, soothing song that both puts me to sleep and creeped me out a little bit.

The movie itself is based on the origin story of how the book of Kells came to be back during early Christian history. The film’s main character, a boy named Brendan, becomes involved in a mission to help finish and protect this precious book that was a target of invading Vikings. At the same time he meets a fairy named Aisling. She is willing to help him in his missions, so long as he makes sure none of the others living in the Abbey of Kells travel into her forest. These missions involve a variety of different tasks. One is to gather berries for ink and working in privacy so he won’t get in trouble. Another is to battle a gigantic demon creature made of pure darkness and steal its only eye.

The film itself starts innocently enough, and it’s easy to get drawn in with the movie’s one of a kind animation style. As it goes on you can see a lot more violence in the film than you first thought, especially when it involves the Vikings. Most films would not enjoy the idea of showing their audience a burning town and having screaming villagers to join it, but those at the Cartoon Saloon studio believe otherwise. It made for a very powerful scene and it is not easy to erase that from the mind. The battle with the dark creature is also rather intense and the fear felt by the characters is very palpable.

The concept of death and loss of family is also touched on in this film. While I applaud the directors and animators for doing this it may be too intense of a scene for children. However, despite the dark moments that pierce through the light atmosphere I find the movie to be an incredible piece of film. The animation alone is stunning, and the story is one that I will certainly remember.

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