Premise: A young girl who lives in the wilderness with her family takes it upon herself to hunt a fox that has been killing their livestock.
I like short movies like this. It’s a simple, sweet concept well-drawn and animated. The characters have bold, clear designs, uncluttered by unnecessary lines, but they move through landscapes of subtle shades (that, while almost certainly digitally drawn, look like watercolors). The music is smooth and ethereal to bring out the emotions, but is grounded by the natural sounds of the forest; as the high flute and lyrical strings play, we hear birds twittering and leaves rustling. The central concept of the story is a bit romantic and not likely to happen in real life (though I have heard stories of wild animals showing uncharacteristic care for humans), but there’s a layer of reality at its foundation: the girl’s family needs their livestock in order to survive the winter, and likewise the fox needs to eat in order to avoid starvation. The success of “The Girl and the Fox,” apart from the beauty of its art and sounds, is that it acknowledges this reality while still telling a tender almost-fairy-tale.
I was going to put a slightly-snarky-but-actually-pretty-sincere clever quip right here, but it contained a spoiler, and I don’t feel like spoiling the sweet little surprise of such a short film. Disney itself, as separate from Pixar, hasn’t been doing so well in the animated features department for a few years (with the possible exception of <em>Tangled</em>, which I still haven’t seen), but here they’ve produced a short film easily as charming as anything their better half can make. No doubt John Lasseter producing has something to do with that, but likely much credit goes to director John Kahrs as well. Well done, chaps, well done.
I promise, an actual Post of Original Content will come before too long. I’ve got the Meme to finish and a bunch of other overdue stuff as well.
But first, another pretty animated short film. I had to watch it twice to understand what was going on, because it flies by so quickly, but it’s worth watching more than that just for the beautiful colors and music. It’s got enough heart to make you smile, even if it doesn’t have the emotional punch of After the Rain or Eyrie. And the central idea is really cool, dreamlike stuff. I wish it were longer.
I’m back! My visit with the exceedingly lovely ladies Melpomene and Urania was a blast, and included a very productive visit to a very large Half Price Books (and Records and MGZNs). I may report on my book finds later. The Meme shall also be taken up again, although upon returning home I was immediately thrust into a very long and hectic work week, thus keeping me from the blogging I had hoped to do. But it shall be continued, never fear!
Also, I bring to you, perhaps as some kind of peace-gift for my long break, a really really fine short film I just found. It’s sweet, touching, beautiful, and even rather funny. It’s by a second-year art student at the California Institute of the Arts. And I’d best let it speak for itself.
Presumed Artist/Director – Toniko Pantoja Music composed by Denny Schneidemesser Violinist – Taryn J. Harbridge Low and Tin Whistle – Kristin Naigus Sound Design by Glenn Harfagre
Title:The Secret of Kells (2010) IMDb Director: Tomm Moore (yes, two M’s) Voice Actors: Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally Score Composer: Bruno Coulais Length: 75 minutes Rating (US): No MPAA rating; suitable for older children, but beware of a few very intense, scary sequences, including an implied slaughter of village folk Spoiler-free Synopsis: In the Irish monastic community at Kells, young Brendan dreams of becoming a master illuminator, but is frustrated by his Abbot’s obsession with fortifying against the Vikings over book-keeping. Brendan’s hopes are raised when a kooky old monk (and master illuminator!) arrives in Kells with a beautiful and unfinished Bible. In order to help with the book and learn illumination, Brendan must venture outside the walls of Kells, where he meets Aisling, the Fair Folk spirit of the forest. Unfortunately, the Vikings aren’t far behind… Reason for Watching: It was this movie’s Oscar nominations that brought it to my attention, and I’m glad it did, because pretty much everything about it is right down my alley: the Middle Ages, Ireland, a fairy story, elves/fae, Christianity, striking 2D animation, Celtic music… Movie Re-watchability: High. In addition to an enthralling, thoughtful story, the artwork itself is beautifully layered and complex, worthy of many close viewings. Director Re-watchability: This is Tomm Moore’s only completed film that he has directed, so far, and I’m interested in his future work. He has a good grasp of how to match a movie’s visual style with the content of its story, and also knows the value of careful pacing, moments of silence, and simply taking one’s time to do things right. Recommendation: Oh aye. This is a more intelligent and bold movie than we’re used to seeing in the children’s genre, as it has plenty for adults to think about. In fact, I’d wager to say that it’s really an adult movie that can happily be enjoyed by kids as well. Also, it knows how not to break its own magic. There are no pop-culture references to be found, no hipster catchphrases, no easy resolutions. Most modern kids’ movies aspire merely to be a drug to keep the kids quiet for an hour and a half—this one aspires to give them poetry and beauty, and trusts that it will do them good.
[I’ve been very careful to avoid SPOILERS in the review, but do talk about some of the plot.]
Aisling: I’ve lived through many ages. I’ve seen suffering in the darkness. Yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the book. The book that turned darkness into light.
The first thing you notice about The Secret of Kells is its visual style, which imitates the flat planes, geometric symbols, and striking colors found in medieval and Celtic art. The effect is lovely, and unlike any other animated film I know of (although it reminds me somewhat of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, which took medieval stained-glass windows for inspiration). Inside Kells, the shapes are formed of hard lines and points, often in the staircases, scaffolding, tables, and chairs. The effect is orderly, but sometimes the spatial edges of, say, a room seem to just roll away, and we’re left with a slightly surreal image of the picture’s main object almost hanging in space, as seen in the picture below with the Abbott looking out the tower window. Outside Kells, in Aisling’s forest, Celtic swirls and spirals become more prominent, shifting and swaying with the wind like living things. Here, the sound design gives a tangible reality to the stylized images. Then, when the Vikings arrive, with their fire and metal and violence, everything changes: the colors bleed into stark black and red, perspective suddenly makes the world large and menacing, and the invaders lack detail, appearing as menacing, unthinking monsters. It’s not an accurate depiction of Viking culture, to be sure, but it does reflect the medieval terror of Viking ruthlessness.
You’ll like Brendan, the ginger-headed boy who desperately wants to illustrate books, but tries to respect the wishes of his uncle, the Abbott Cellach (tries, at least, until Brother Aidan gives him an “excuse” for disobeying). Brendan has never left the walls of Kells as long as he can remember. His parents died to the Vikings, and his uncle has taken care of him ever since. He’s a curious and creative boy, though prone to absent-mindedness. Living in safety and peace, he gives nary a thought to the reports of Vikings raids along the coast and islands. His uncle, the Abbott, can think of nothing else. When he should be guiding the spiritual welfare of his monks and the other people living in the settlement of Kells, he instead can only think of designing and building larger and stronger fortifications.
The status quo is upset by the arrival of Brother Aidan* from Iona, fleeing the Vikings. Aidan is the most celebrated illuminator of the times, and he brings with him the unfinished Book of Iona—later to become the Book of Kells, the most complete and beautiful example of medieval illumination and Celtic art we have today. A sprightly, roguish, and rather unorthodox man, Aidan immediately sees that Brendan has immense artistic talent and enlists his aid to finish the Book, but secretly so that the Abbott won’t find out.
As part of their surreptitious work, Aidan sends Brendan into the surrounding Irish forest to collect the special berries for their colored inks. It’s there that Brendan meets Aisling, a white shape-changing fairy girl who claims to be the spirit of the forest. She’s the movie’s most charismatic and entertaining character (easily seen in the movie’s marketing, which disproportionately emphasizes her), and it’s easy to see why. Sometimes a wolf, sometimes a girl, sometimes a flying ghost, she is otherworldly, but possesses a very minxish sense of humor and speaks her mind clearly. When Brendan tries in vain to convince her that he knows how to climb trees, but that the ones he is used to are “smaller,” she laughs and says, “Yeah…like bushes!” She also takes a liking to Brother Aidan’s white cat, Pangur Bán, and in one beautiful instance transforms him into a ghostly creature in order to help Brendan.
The children—for though Aisling is likely very, very old, her personality and appearance are of a young girl—develop a charming rapport, and somehow their teasing and silliness escapes the pit of “hipness” and irreverence that most mainstream fairy tales keep falling into these days, that would rob it of timelessness. Perhaps this is because, for all their childlike qualities, they are not truly irreverent regarding important things. The Abbott frustrates and confuses Brendan, but Brendan still loves and respects him. Aisling doesn’t understand the Christian love for books, but she respects Brendan’s desires even if she doesn’t fully understand them. And the magic itself is taken very seriously.
Perhaps you remember that essay of C.S. Lewis’ where he said that, in fairy stories, you may have humor, but the magic itself must never be laughed at? The Secret of Kells follows that rule. Even the apparently carefree Aisling is terrified of the cave of the pagan god Crom. This ancient Irish deity—or demon impersonating a deity, from the Christian perspective—promotes death and darkness, and is enemy even to Fair Folk. Brendan’s encounter with Crom is one of this laid-back movie’s more tense and interesting moments, as black superstition and fear is challenged by sacred art and creative inspiration in a stunning and surreal battle.
Most of the tension derives from two sources: the Abbott’s increasing anger at Brendan’s disobedience in serving Aidan, and the inevitable approach of the Vikings. While the latter is more terrifying, the former is more interesting. The Abbott is not a villain, but he does fail to see what is truly important. Still, Brendan is wrong to disobey him, and Brother Aidan is wrong to encourage his disobedience, even if for good intentions.
The movie does have a happy ending, though not a traditional one. In a surprising move by the filmmakers, the last ten minutes or so take us through some fifteen or twenty years, quietly observing how these characters grow and mature until they are ready to be reconciled. It was heartwarming and thought-provoking to see how reconciliation and forgiveness were gradually obtained between these three people.
If I have any critique, it is that the story doesn’t actually delve that much into the process and results of illumination. There is talk of creativity, and the amazing brilliance that a master artist can bring to the text he illustrates, and we see Brendan try his hand at it a little bit, here, and there. The Book of Kells (also called the Book of Iona) is frequently praised for its beauty, but rarely shown. In the end, this is okay, because the movie is focused more on the personal journey of Brendan, but the themes of creativity and inspiration would have been stronger had the movie investigated the Book and the principles by which the art was made.
I have mentioned Christianity a few times in this review. To be honest, the movie never explicitly discusses religion or faith, nor does it ever identify the Book of Kells as the Bible (although one can easily find online that it is such). I wish the movie had, but I doubt the filmmakers are Christians, and they wanted to appeal to a wide audience. Still, I think Lewis, Tolkien, and MacDonald would have liked this story a lot. The Bible is, indeed, the book that turns darkness into light!
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
– John 1:5
*Fun note: Aidan is voiced by Mick Lally, a popular Irish actor, who also played Grandpa Hugh in The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), one of my favorite film fairy stories.
Ah, Grandmas. They’re warm and cuddly, right? They’re wise and experienced. They tell histories and bedtime stories. The sympathize with the young folk, even when they complain that the young folk are too loud. They’re very sweet. Right? Right?
Well, not Granny O’Grimm, so much. She comes by her name honestly. Oh, she’d very much identify herself with the above description, most certainly. But perhaps the only thing we can truly identify about her is that she loves telling bedtime stories. In fact, she seems to take this one personally…
Granny O’Grimm’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ apparently won a bunch of awards and stuff:
Galway Film Fleadh, IRL — Winner Best Animated Short Palm Springs, LA — Runner up, Audience Choice Award Denver Starz, U.S. — Winner, People’s Choice Award Dam Short Film Fest, U.S. — Runner-up, Audience Award Irish Film & TV awards, IRL — Winner Best Animation Omaha Film Festival, U.S. — Best Animated Short, Audience award Heart of Gold, AUS — Winner, Best Comedy Cinegael Montreal – Winner, Audience Award, Best Short Newport Beach – Winner, Outstanding Achievement in Short Films Chicago Irish Film Festival, US – Audience Award, Best Short (2nd Place) Cinegael Montreal, CAN – Audience Award, Best Short Cineanima Short Film Festival, POR – Special Mention, Best Short Film Academy Awards, USA – Best Animated Short Film nomination Cartoons on the Bay, IT – Best Short Animation & Best Animated Character Digital Media Awards, IRE – Best Animation
As it happens, it was made by a bunch of people:
Directed by Nicky Phelan Written & Performed by Kathleen O’Rourke Produced by Darragh O’Connell Concept by Kathleen O’Rourke and John Walsh Music by Gregory Magee
And the short film. Which I will now show you. For your enjoyment. Really! It’s six minutes, and pretty clever and funny. You may even giggle, chuckle, or *snerk*. (And I don’t use asterisks lightly!)
(I’m not sure where I was going with that asterisk remark. Please forgive me; it’s past midnight and I’m up far beyond my bedtime. My St. Patrick’s Day review is overdue, as are some other things, so….please enjoy this short, slightly bitter, film to tide you over. ‘Kay? Thanks!)
Title:Dragon Hunters (2008) (IMDb) (Chasseurs de dragons in its original French) Director: Guillaume Ivernel and Arthur Qwak Voice Actors (US dub): Forest Whitaker, Rob Paulsen, Mary Mouser Score Composer: Klaus Badelt (of Pirates of the Caribbean fame) Length: about 80 minutes, but it sure feels longer Rating (US): PG for “scary images, fantasy action, and language” Spoiler-free Synopsis: A pair of oddball conmen who pretend to be dragon hunters are guilt-tripped by a little princess into going on a quest to the End of the World to kill the mighty World-Gobbler, a great dragon that periodically wakes up to rampage and…well, just to rampage, I guess. Reason for Watching: It was free On-Demand, I was bored, and I like to explore lesser known movies every once in awhile. Movie Re-watchability: Bleh, low. Kids might like it and the art design is very interesting, but it disappoints in pretty much every other category. Director Re-watchability: According to IMDb, Ivernel hasn’t directed anything else, and Qwak only has a little bit of French TV directing under his belt. I will be very surprised if this movie leads to any other decent gigs for them. Recommendation: Nope, not worth your time. Oh, it’s harmless enough, I suppose. The background art is pretty neat, even surreal. But the story’s a mess of clichés ill-handled, pointless action sequences that aren’t very well-edited, a potentially interesting world that is poorly developed, and slapstick humor that ranges from mildly amusing to annoying. And the ending is bungled awkwardly. A better animated kids movie about dragons is How to Train Your Dragon.
There is one reasonably effective sequence in Dragon Hunters. Gwizdo, normally the comic relief, has been humiliated by his own cowardice (he was too scared to even try to help save the young princess Zoe while they were being chased by a swarm of tiny dragons) and had an argument with his best friend, Lian-chu, about the probably-fatal nature of their quest. Depressed and feeling worthless, he walks away through an apocalyptic landscape of floating rocks and little islands with abandoned ruins on them, the whole gray world seeming to fall apart around him, while an emotional, evocative song plays over the striking imagery. Then two talking creatures appear, the music jerks to a stop, Gwizdo opens his grating mouth again, and we’re back to normal. But for about 30 seconds, I could almost take the character’s emotions seriously.
Ah, characters. If your movie spends 90% of its time with just three characters (and burbling blue rabbit-thing), those characters should be interesting and likable. Our main duo is Lian-chu and Gwizdo, the former a slow-witted gentle giant who does all the hard work, and the latter his shrimpy wise-cracking “friend” who is constantly trying to sell their services as dragon-slayers to needy townsfolk, only to repeatedly get cheated after defeating the monsters because the townsfolks don’t think they are “credible” warriors. Lian-chu is a nice fellow, but he’s not given any depth beyond his love of knitting, which his mother taught him before she died in an attack by the World Gobbler when he was a kid. Otherwise, he’s the standard big guy with muscles who would rather just own a sheep farm and knit sweaters for people. (Is that a standard? I’m sure it is, somewhere.) Gwizdo, however, is as annoying and nonsensical as his name. He’s one of those pipsqueaks who never stop talking even though they have nothing to say. His character arc supposedly ends with him learning to love the little girl Zoe and be brave enough to support Lian-chu in the final fight, but it’s all pretty dumb and forced. And Zoe herself? She’s the spunky little girl who wants to be a “girl knight” and can’t stop bouncing in spasms of joy how “unreal” it is that Gwizdo and Lian-chu are willing to take her on their quest and away from her boring, blind old uncle, Lord Arnold. I greatly sympathized with Gwizdo when he grew so annoyed with her he wanted to wring her twig of a neck.
Oh yeah, this is also one of those movies where an annoying kid gets to tag along on an extremely dangerous, suicidal mission, despite all logic and attempts to the contrary on the part of the adults. Does anyone realize how bad this message is? I want my niece and nephews to grow up to be brave and active, too, but no kid should think it’s okay for them to run away from home and go on a deadly quest because “the power of belief” will give them victory. And if they join up with two strangers who lie, are incompetent, and won’t immediately take them home (regardless of the little kid’s protests), they shouldn’t believe that their innocence and joie de vivre will turn those schmucks into heroes. What rot.
But why spend digital ink taking something seriously when it doesn’t even view itself with much respect? Let’s look at the movie’s biggest virtue, its visuals. They’re pretty neat. The whole world is full of gray and silver clouds in which float rocky islands of various sizes, some barely small enough for a dog to sit on, others able to support massive castles and sprawling landscapes. Like the Hallelujah Mountains of Avatar taken to an extreme, and lacking any sort of explanation. And some of the islands are actually just balls of dirt and grass that appear to have their own subjective gravity. Characters hop onto them and can run on every side of these house-sized spheres, even upside down, and then leap off onto a flat-topped island when they please. Gravity goes out of its way to accommodate the whims of the characters, which is probably why they never seem to care that they are often mere feet away from sheer drops into an endless cloudy abyss. The islands drift often and break into pieces without warning, meaning you could wake up one morning to find your campsite (and friends) many miles away. This danger never seems to register with our heroes, but oh well. It looks cool.
So the design of the world is bold and neat, but I found too many scenes were dark and dingy in appearance, obscuring details and preventing me from really enjoying the full artistry on display. The scenes in broad daylight show pleasingly bright colors, but an alarming amount of the movie takes place at night, in dimly shadowed areas (like the castle and the forest), and in a gray wasteland of ruins under an overcast sky. For me, the occasional moody look was not worth the feeling of details obscured and lost animated potential. The contrast between the colorful daylight scenes and the depressing grayness that saturates most of the film is also too drastic – it feels like two different art styles were crammed together. Likewise the more realistic, almost gritty design of the buildings contrasts too much with the extremely goofy, stylized look of the characters. The blue rabbit-thing, while amusing and less annoying than Gwizdo and Zoe, nonetheless feels like he comes from a completely different movie; maybe Despicable Me (another superior adventure to this).
The whole aesthetic is confused. Sometimes it wants to be a surreal take on European fairy tales, sometimes it wants to be sort of Chinese, and then it just goes all bubbly modern kiddy-movie kitsch (again, the blue rabbit-thing, which I actually sort of liked). Look at the names: Arnold, Zoe, Gwizdo, and Lian-chu – all belonging to humans living in the same culture and kingdom! And the music, too. Sometimes it’s got a neat Celtic flair, other times it shifts into a very far-Eastern melody, but most of the time it’s the basic bombastic action epic stuff that hits our pulses but is instantly forgettable. And the frustrating thing is that this mix could be really inventive and fun if the movie would have gone far enough with its inspirations. Instead, it just toys with them before falling back into tired clichés and stylistic choices that lack meaning.
The ending is bungled, too. For a minute after the climax, it’s the standard happy ending, which is fine. It should have ended there. But then the trio goes back to Lord Arnold’s castle (he gave Lian-chu and Gwizdo the quest to kill the World-Gobbler) and he inexplicably acts like a big jerk, refusing to pay the heroes their promised reward and sending Zoe to her room (a mild punishment for disobeying orders by running off on a suicidal quest with strangers, actually). He gets told off, and then Zoe escapes from her room to go live with the two men on the sheep farm they are going to start. Then it ends. More than a little unsettling, if you ask me. Sure, we’re supposed to believe that Lian-chu and Gwizdo are super innocent happy dudes, but the idea that this little girl is going to live with two immature men she barely knows while abandoning her one living blood relative who, while a jerk, stills seems to care for her wellbeing and provide for her pretty decently just seems wrong. And a tad bit creepy.
Plus, the pacing of that ending is way off. Instead of ending on an emotional high (of whatever emotion is present in the movie), we’re jerked back into a slightly melancholy and irritated state by Lord Arnold’s bizarrely jerkish behavior and our heroes’ inability to get any respect (I mean, Gwizdo is still a loser, but at least Lian-chu deserves some respect). So we’ve got a creepy, family-unfriendly message paired with bad pacing – two horrible cinematic sins!
Dragon Hunters had a shot at being something special, I think, but it goes out of its way to attempt stale Disney-ish formulas, with little wit or imagination to compensate. It doesn’t explore its unique world, it fails to surprise or delight, its characters are uninspired and sometimes aggravating, and it can’t make up its mind about its art style or its story. I give the makers praise for trying, but they didn’t quite succeed this time. I didn’t hate the movie, but I can’t say my time was well spent seeing it.