Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: The Secret of Kells

Have you ever noticed that thing where if something is critically acclaimed or nominated for a bunch of Oscars or the kind of movie that people in tweed jackets and pencil skirts praise over specialty wines, it's usually really hard to understand?

Don't get me wrong, I love the wine and cheese crowd (yum), and I have harbored desires to own tweed (but it doesn't work on me), and I like the occasional pretentious art piece as much as the next film student. It's just...why does everything have to be so high minded all the time, in order to be considered "artistic" and "good". Why can't it just make some freaking sense?

Obviously as you gathered from the title, today we're talking about The Secret of Kells, a charming Irish animated children's film about a novice monk who befriends a fairy in the woods outside his abbey, while the abbey hides from the Northmen and work continues on a very important book. That's pretty much as basic as I can make the summary, which I think explains my frustration.

The Secret of Kells is a good movie. Or perhaps I should say that it's a Good Movie. It's the sort of movie that I absolutely should love, because it deals with death and loss and grief and the importance of art for hope, and all those important things, and because it deals with them in a way accessible to small children, and I love it when movies do that. I, for the record, love the parts of Secret of Kells that have these elements in them. They make me happy.

But I also don't get it. And I feel bad for not getting it, like I should be handing over my nerd card, or shuffling shamefaced away from my MFA in film. But I don't get it. It's weird and confusing and there's way too much stuff going on, and it's hella pretty, to be sure, but I've never been one to think that a movie being visually appealing is enough to make up for its not having a plot.

I'm terribly American that way.

It's a good movie. It's just that I feel like this is a case where the pendulum of children's stories has swung a bit too far in the opposite direction. Rather than something like Snow White, where the story is dirt simple and it's all primary colors and good versus evil and simplistic moral lessons and rape idealogy, this is a story with depth and complexity. Just a little bit too much complexity, where looking at the story is a bit like trying to decipher an illuminated text. Oh it's beautiful, all right, but it's fricking hard to read.

The plot, then, goes like this. Brendan, a young novice monk at the Kells Monastery, is a pretty normal little boy. He's always late to his chores, getting dirty, and not particularly good at following orders. This is all much to the exasperation of his uncle, the Father Abbot, who wants Brendan to grow up and be a full monk someday.

Brendan is much beloved in the abbey, though, especially by his three racial stereotype monk friends. Sidenote, while I really do appreciate and applaud the film for including medieval POC characters, which is much more true to history and made the story more interesting, these guys were all drawn in the hands down most offensive way they could be. Take a long look at that picture. Yeah. Racist.

Anyway, the Abbot is frantically building a wall to keep out the Northmen, who are in the process of sacking all of Ireland. They've already raided the island abbey of Iona, where the Book of Iona was being written. As a result, Brother Aidan comes to Kells, bringing with him the book, which is supposed to have some kind of magical powers. It can "turn the darkness into light."

The book itself is an illuminated manuscript, the likes of which have apparently never been seen, and Aidan is a master illuminator. He's getting older, though, and his hands are shaking. He wants to take on an apprentice, and decides that Brendan will do nicely.

But the Father Abbot disagrees. He needs all hands to help build the wall to keep them safe. There's no time for this book nonsense. Brendan, being a little boy, rebels, and asks Aidan to teach him anyway. The first step is to gather berries to make the ink. And the only way to get the berries is to sneak out of the abbey and into the forest beyond. Brendan's never done that before.

The forest is big, and scary, and Brendan gets lost almost immediately. Fortunately (or not), something comes to his aid. A little fairy girl, named Aisling (pronounced Ashley). Aisling agrees to take Brendan to find the berries, as long as he promises never to hurt her forest or come in it without her permission. Brendan agrees, and we are treated to an adorable montage of kids playing and friendship and beautifully rendered forest scenery.

Except for this one bit where they stumble onto the dark part of the forest, where Crom Cruach lives. Apparently he's evil or something. Might have killed Aisling's parents. Not clear.

Brendan gets back with the berries, gets in trouble, sneaks out, and apprentices to Aidan. But he needs something else before he can really start work! A crystal eye that belongs to Crom Cruach. Brendan must sneak out of the abbey again, fight the darkness and defeat Crom Cruach in his cave to get the crystal. And he does, in a kind of trippy sequence that I still don't understand but was very pretty to watch.

Brendan uses the crystal to start work on the manuscript, but time is not on their side. The Abbot breaks in, and the Northmen arrive. The abbey is under attack, and Brendan and Aidan must flee with the book. They travel to a faraway village, while the abbey is ransacked, and there Brendan finally works on the book in earnest.

Years pass, and Aidan passes away with them. Finally, the book is done, and Brendan brings it back to Kells to show it to his repentant uncle on his deathbed.

That's it, that's the movie.

The problem isn't that anything here (other than the racist stereotype monks) was offensive or bad or anything, it's more that when I finished the movie I went, "Well that was pretty," and then, "What, huh?"

Because I legitimately do not understand so many things about this movie. What is the Secret of Kells? Is it Aisling? Crom Cruach? The book? Why everyone kept giving the Abbot flack for trying to keep a village alive? Why those monks were so, so offensive? What? And how about where does Aisling come from? For that matter, where does Crom come from? What happened to Brendan's parents? How did the Abbot live for another twenty years after getting an arrow to the heart? Why does the green ink cause an explosion?

So many questions, and really no answers. But the real issue I had with the movie wasn't that I didn't get it or that it was too artsy for my taste. It was more simple than that: the movie never told me why the book was important.

Because here's the thing. I am all for the arts. I really do believe that arts and movies and books have the power to bring the light in, to save people, to transform lives. I believe that wholeheartedly. But I would have liked, just once, to find out why this book was going to change the world. Or rather, how. What was so special about the book? Is it just because it's beautiful? Because I'm okay with that, but you need to tell me.

This film is packaged like a movie for children, but in the end it really doesn't seem like one. I mean, I don't think it's inappropriate or anything. I like the reality that it shows, where the bad guys sometimes win, and the real triumph is to not lose hope. But I don't get it. I don't get what it's about. And without that, I really can't recommend it.

I dunno, the Abbot seemed pretty reasonable to me.

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