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Published on February 10th, 2011 | by Colin Ballsmonkey Hill


Extreme Inbetweens – Secret of Kells and Dead Leaves Reviews

Two Pieces of Great Foreign Animation that put most of the Good Ole U.S. of A’s Stuff to utter Shame.  Or, My Reviews of The Secret of Kells and Dead Leaves.

Here in America, CGI has become the dominate media for animated films.  Some utilize it to great effect like Pixar and Blue Sky, and some…well…don’t.  I wont name names of course *cough*Dreamworks*/cough*.  Point is, it’s always interesting when an animated film comes along that’s stylistically different from the rest, and takes bold new approaches to animation.   But you’re not going to find it here, studios and most audiences fear and reject change, no, we must look to other countries for new exciting animated films.  Today I’m here to review two such pieces, both very different from each other, yet equal in level of quality and fun.  2009’s The Secret of Kells from Ireland and 2004’s Dead Leaves out of Japan. Both offer quality viewings, each in their own unique ways.  So let’s dive in.

The Secret of Kells (2009) directed by Tomm Moore

The Secret of Kells was a film I was very vaguely familiar with.  I had only heard about it when I read that it was nominated for Best Animated film at the Oscars.  I hadn’t seen any clips or images of it, and I remember being disappointed that it was nominated and Ponyo from Hayao Miyazaki got snubbed.  It wasn’t until earlier this year (2011 for all you people in the future reading this, hope your alien/robot/Sasquatch overlords are treating you kindly), that I decided to sit down and watch the flick…I was blown away.

The story is set in 9th century Ireland and tells the fictionalized story behind the Book of Kells.  The main character is a young boy named Brendan, an apprentice illuminator who works with a famed illuminator Brother Aidan to complete his manuscript, The Book of Iona.  But his uncle, Abbot Cellach, a former illuminator, wants Brendan to follow in his footsteps and help him finish construction on a wall around their village to protect them from invading Vikings.  The creation of the Book is the framework of the story, but the true core of movie is Brendan growing up and reaching out from his sheltered existence and discovering the world past the walls.  The story is easy to relate to and very emotional.  The main characters each have their own charm and could very well be real people.  The classic archetypes are well represented and they don’t feel forced or one-dimensional like in other stories.  Brendan isn’t annoying or whiny like most kids in animated films, he’s adventurous, creative and kind-hearted.  Any of us who’ve ever felt like we’ve been smothered or sheltered can see ourselves in him, he’s someone longing to discover new things and doesn’t want to be forced into the shadow of someone else.  Abbot Cellach could have easily have come out a typical oppressive figure for our hero with no real motivation for being a dick other than being a dick, but instead he’s portrayed as someone who cares, both for his nephew and his people, but has become grizzled and hardened over time, losing his hopefulness in favor of realism.  He’s so focused on protecting everyone it actually blinds him both from the outside world and his nephew’s plight. He’s a very multi-layered character, he doesn’t yell, he’s very calm, rational, and intimidating, and his arc and relationship with Brendan is one of the strongest aspects of the movie.  Brother Aidan is the stark opposite of Cellach.  He’s optimistic, easy going, and imaginative.  He’s the one to encourage Brendan to open his eyes to the world around him.  He’s kind of like that fun Grandpa who takes you to the zoo, and gives you money, and takes you to candy factories run by Gene Wilder or Johnny Depp.

The true highlight of the movie is the visuals.  They’re in a word, phenomenal.  The movie combines traditional and digital animation.  The look of the movie is very flat, meant to give the illusion of a storybook, however the flatness works in the film’s favor.  It allows the animators to play with depth and perspective in a way never before seen.  The characters and environments all appear two dimensional but the characters freely move around the world as if in three dimensions, to see it is mind-boggling.  The use of colors is absolutely astounding, looking so rich and detailed that it rivals even hand painted backgrounds.  The colors enrich the emotional beats of the movie.  The use of bright blues, yellows, and greens for the seen where Brendan and the fairy, Aisling, give a sense of wonder and magic, while the powerful use of blacks, grays, and dark reds in the Viking scenes add to the dread and terror.  The music is done by Bruno Coulais and it is beautiful.  The animation was done by three different studios in three different countries.  Cartoon Saloon in Ireland, Vivi Film in Belgium, and Les Armateurs in France, all three at the top of their game here.

Looking at the film it reminded me of one of my favorite animators, and on I’ve spoken of many times here, Genndy Tartakovsky.  The flat imagery and dynamic cinematography and very reminiscent of his work on shows like Samurai Jack and Clone Wars, and that’s a very good thing.  I cannot recommend this film enough, I’m embarrassed it took me this long to see it.

And now, onto an animated film of a completely different nature…

Dead Leaves (2004) directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi

Remember all those fast paced, high energy, and nonsense cartoons of the 90’s?  Well, they got nothing on Dead Leaves.

Done by the animation studio Production I.G., Dead Leaves is a crazy, balls-to-the-walls animated action spectacle that trades in plot, character development, and emotional depth in favor of insane visuals, intense cartoon violence, and the crudest of crude humor.  And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.  The movie focuses on two characters, Retro, a hyperactive dim-wit with a TV for a head, and Pandy, an ass-kicking femme fatale.  They wake up naked on Earth with no memory of how they got there, and after and wacky violent encounter with the cops, they end up in a prison colony on the moon where their memory begins to return.  All the while people get killed horribly, things get blown-up, and some sexin’ goes on.

This movie makes absolutely no sense and it’s awesome!  It knows exactly what it is and delivers on every level.  It’s extremely fast paced, and rarely, if ever, slows down long enough for you to catch your breath.  The characters, while lacking any true depth, are all in their own way, charming, and you find yourself getting attached to them, if only it’s because their all funny.  The humor is about as childish as you can get.  Sex jokes, poop jokes, penis jokes, they’re all there.  Hell, there’s a guy named Dick Drill, and it’s exactly what the name implies.  Yet for all the immaturity you can’t help but to laugh and feel good for doing it.  The violence is insane.  Think of the crazy anime fight scene you can picture, it pales in comparison here.  It’s like The Matrix on 12 pounds of sugar and crack, bullets and blood fly everywhere.  Ancillary characters get killed left and right while the main characters are left magically unscathed. It’s hard for me to even really describe what goes on here, you just have to see it for yourself.

The animation in this movie is sick.  Unlike the elegance of Secret of Kells, this movie features heavy shadows, sharp designs, and extreme exaggeration.  It’s seems cluttered and chaotic but there’s really strong construction in it and features excellent staging. It’s like a Fleischer Bros. cartoon if the Fleischer artists were Japanese and on heroin.  The rock soundtrack only adds to the energy of the film.  I’m a little late getting to this one, but I’m glad I stumbled across it, the smile I had on my face while watching it had to be surgically removed.

So there you have it, two great animated films, from two great countries for animation, both using traditional techniques in combination with modern advancements to create astounding visual epics.  People, I’m saying it again, check out Dead Leaves and The Secret of Kells, you will absolutely not regret it.  As for animation studios here in America, I can only say this, STEP IT UP!

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