I personally have a very rough time getting accustomed to modern animation’s transition into computer-animated territory. Every time I see an ad for a CG animation, even for positively-received features like the recent Pixar flick Inside Out, I tend to let out a pained groan. There’s a depth of artistry to hand-drawn animation that I just don’t believe translates to its computer generated counterpart. It may be curmudgeony of me to complain about the way things are shifting to the digital spectrum, but I just don’t connect to movies animated that way. It’s more of a matter of personal taste than a choice of critical conviction, but it still remains true.
The Irish animated feature The Secret of Kells did a great job of helping transition CG animation skeptics like myself into the digital realm. While the computer-animated aspects of the film were somewhat flat & uninteresting to me, they were also luxuriously fleshed out by intricate chalk line drawings & geometric framing that made the CGI more visually engaging. Like with classic story book illustrations, a lot of The Secret of Kells’ visual artistry lurks in its borders where expressionistic symbols & shapes are given space to flourish. In this way, the movie finds a fantastic middle ground between tradition and innovation, making the ancient palatable for young tastes while not losing sight of hopeless luddites like myself.
The story told in The Secret of Kells also looks back through Irish tradition & mythology for its inspiration, but rarely manages to match the heights of its visual accomplishments. It’s a simple tale about an impending Viking attack on a settlement run by Irish monks who must choose between protecting their people and preserving their own book-making traditions. Like with the animation, the story is most interesting when it allows itself to flow freely, musing about ancient spirits of the woods, reflecting on the constant struggle of man’s destruction of Nature, and a particularly fantastic tangent in which a house cat named Pangur Bán is transformed into an out-of-body spirit.
There’s an admirable quality to the film’s message about the balance between academia and “real” life, best captured in the exchange “You can’t find out everything from books, you know.” “I think I read that once,” but it’s truly the balance between CG and “real” animation where The Secret of Kells shines brightest. I suspect it was the technical aspects of the animation, not the film’s story, that earned it a nomination for a Best Animated Feature Oscar. Alas, it was a tough crowd to beat that year, since the other features nominated were Pixar’s Up (which won), Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mister Fox, Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, and Laika’s Coraline. Although The Secret of Kells may not have been the best of its peers in a particularly great year for animation, it did accomplish a balance between the old guard & the new that deserves its own accolades. It’s a compromise of forms I’d like to see explored a lot more often.