Book of Kells hits the big screenDONALD CLARKE
The iconic tome is the inspiration for a new Irish film involving serpents, Vikings and a bold young hero – and there’s not a single leprechaun in sight
WHEN Tomm Moore, a young animator from Kilkenny, decided to embark on his first feature film, he was keen to explore Irish themes, locations and idioms. There were, of course, dangers in this approach.
“Oh, that’s right. I definitely didn’t want to make Darby O’Gill and the Little People ,” he laughs. “You will, in this business, often hear people coming up with ideas like Larry the Leprechaun. “No really! ‘He could be the next Mickey Mouse’, they’ll say.” Nearly a decade after Moore and his team began their efforts, The Secret of Kells arrives in cinemas and, as the director intended, it wraps itself in Celtic garb without drifting towards heritage cinema or indulging in Paddywhackery. Setting out to construct a fresh myth surrounding the creation of The Book of Kells , the film follows Brendan, a plucky 12-year-old, as he fights magical serpents and Vikings while in pursuit of an enchanted crystal.
The story – which also features monks voiced by such luminaries as Brendan Gleeson and Mick Lally – may be a tad disorganised, but it works as a surface on which to hang some genuinely sumptuous visuals.
Every frame of this film shows evidence of Moore’s fertile imagination and determination to avoid the obvious. Vikings appear as angry towers. Wolves are jagged silhouettes. Kila, the innovative hyper-folk musicians, provide surprising aural punctuation.
“We looked at a lot of medieval art and Japanese art,” he says. “We were trying to build a world that reflected art before they mastered perspective. That is the world these characters live in. So the fields have the flat look of ancient tapestries. Then, when we wanted to bring in some danger, we would suddenly allow perspective back into the frame. We liked to give the impression danger was breaking through this safe screen.”
There are some peculiarities to the piece. One notices, for instance, the near absence of any reference to Christianity. A viewer could sit through Moore’s film and be unaware that The Book of Kells is a transcription of the gospels.
“Yeah, yeah. That might be right,” he says. “I was really happy when we showed it in the suburbs of Paris to an audience of largely Muslim kids. They still liked it and they responded to it. They asked questions about knowledge being preserved, which is what the film is about. You can’t separate Irish myth from Christianity, but Celtic Christianity is a very unique kind of Christianity. But I see the same themes of death and life in, say, the story of Cúchulainn. I’m more interested in that than I am in the religious aspect.”
Fair enough. But he seems to be suggesting that downplaying the Christian aspects was a marketing decision as well as an artistic one. “To be honest, before we started working with our French co-producers, it hadn’t dawned on us how Christian the story seems. Our French producer, Didier Brunner, said it was a very interesting story, but he wanted to keep it universal. We were conscious of that and played it down. We refer to ‘the Book’, not ‘the Bible’ .”
Moore seems like a clever, determined young man. This is, I suppose, hardly surprising. You would require a degree of drive and a layer of wit to run your own animation studio in the midlands of Ireland. In 1999, shortly after graduating from the animation course at Ballyfermot College of Further Education, he set up the Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny and the company has remained busy ever since.
“I was one of those kids who was always being told off for drawing in class at school,” he explains. “I went into animation with a mind to doing comics, actually. I suspected that doing animation was a bit like factory work. But then I realised how much computers freed up your creativity.”
That’s interesting. A lot of old-school animators complain about the influence of computers, but Moore believes that, even when working in a two-dimensional environment like that of The Secret of Kells , computers empower the imagination. “Yes. It has freed everybody up. Ironically, the computer has allowed us to do something that looks handmade.”
Cartoon Saloon initially made its money by providing animations for commercials and websites. The brief craze for e-cards (remember them?) was, Moore admits, a godsend in the early days. Recently, they have had success with a highly amusing TV series entitled Skunk Fu – in which, yes, a skunk performs martial arts – but Moore was always intent on nudging the team towards a commercial feature.
Eight years ago, they were fortunate enough to bump into representatives of Les Armateurs, the company that produced the wonderful Belleville Rendezvous , and, to the Cartoon Salooners’ delight, the French studio signed on as co-producers of T he Secret of Kells . Financiers from a host of different countries were then enticed into contributing variously sized wads of cash. Eventually they scraped together €6 million, which is a lot for an Irish film, but a small amount for an animated feature.
“We call it Frankenfinance. It’s alive! It’s alive!” he laughs. “The producers who had creative input were, though, all of the right mindset – Canal+ and Les Armateurs in France, in particular. They were interested in doing something different and they were very interested in the Irish aspect.”
But were they tolerant of the eccentric visual style? The Secret of Kells may have a child as its protagonist, but, with its expressionistic flourishes and its nods towards pre-renaissance painting, it does come across a little like an art film. The picture is closer in appearance to a freaky 1960s head movie than it is to, say, Bambi or Dumbo .
Did the producers ever ask Moore to make the film look more like a Saturday morning cartoon? Was there pressure to deliver flashy 3-D computer animation? “Oh, no. Quite the opposite,” he says. “Les Armateurs had built up a reputation for doing work like Belleville Rendezvous . They had been all told that 2-D animation was dead and they proved them wrong. So we thought, let’s do something that’s really 2-D . All the backgrounds are painted in the old-school style.” Still, the producers and distributors must fret about who the film is actually for .
“There were some producers who said ‘no’ because they couldn’t place who it was for. We have found, after testing it in France and Belgium, that it works best with families – with kids and their parents. There was a longer version, but I had to cut quite a bit out of it because there were bits where it was too dark, too heavy. That really, really hurt.”
At any rate, the film’s charm is tied up with its eccentricity and originality. In the same way that Belleville Rendezvous caught a particular sense of Frenchness, The Secret of Kells gets at an (admittedly antique) class of Irishness.
FOR HIS NEXT project, Song of the Sea , Moore is once again dealing with a story that draws from ancient Irish mythology. It’s nice to see such tales being treated in such an unconventional manner, but I am surprised, given the endless narrative possibilities offered by animation, that he isn’t keener on reaching out into the wider world (or the universe, for that matter).
“Well, we do Skunk Fu ,” he says. “And we’re doing a project called Bluebeard that is made in Eastern Europe. But, yes, maybe next time I will make a film about girls in bikinis in outer space.” Larry the Leprechaun meets the Bikini Girls from Space? It could work.
The Secret of Kells is on general release