I saw Despicable Me (2010; dirs. Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud), Megamind (2010; dir. Tom McGrath), and The Secret of Kells (2009; dirs. Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey) all within a 24-hour span. Each was entertaining. Megamind and Miserable Me are really animated science fiction films about comic villains who want to take over the world and who, either through becoming a foster parent or falling in love, discover they have human and redeeming dimensions. They rely especially on digital effects and are in fact digital creations, and although some preliminary manual sketches may have been involved for the most part they were developed entirely on computers, as most animated films are today. I don’t deplore this. Digital animation is a major new development. It is only natural that animated films would make use of it. But The Secret of Kells shows that traditional styles of animation are still relevant. It won’t necessarily appeal to the same audience as Megamind and Miserable Me (there will be some overlap), but it is a better, more imaginative, more entrancing work than either.
The Secret of Kells is animated with hand-drawn images, in the style of Warner Brothers cartoons from the 1960s and 70s. It is a largely, if not entirely fictionalized account of the creation of the legendary Book of Kells in the eighth or ninth century. Its main character “illuminates” hand-copied bibles. In the film, he is assisted by a sprite-like wood spirit. The book comes to be through a combination of magic and inspiration. It is also seen as a product of discord, as it is created while the monastery is threatened by invading Vikings. The film’s images are simple and stylized, drawn with an intense palette of vivid colors. While Megamind and Miserable Me rely on cute children, super heroes, loud noises, and bombast, The Secret of Kells is quiet, allusive, elusive, fanciful, and subtle. It’s a magical film, while the others are entertaining and forgettable.