Guys, I’ll be honest. I haven’t been this daunted by a review since Frozen. First you have the fact that this is an absolutely adored film with a lot of fans amongst readers of this very blog, and then you have the fact that the movie is Irish (well, an Irish-Franco-Belgian co-production) and the fact that I’m Irish (well, an Irish-Greek co-production) and that people seem to think that gives me some kind of special insight into this movie. I mean what are you expecting, that I’m just going to emerge from my turf cottage and impart some ancient Gaelic wisdom through the haze of my clay pipe?
“Yes, now quit stalling.”
Okay, okay. Special insight. Special insight. Let me see. Okay. You know that episode of the Simpsons where they’re crossing from the American embassy into Australia and Homer’s all “Look boy! Now I’m in America! Now I’m in Australia! America! Australia!” and so on and so forth? Imagine an entire culture built around that joke and you have the Irish. We’re obsessed with borders. OBSESSED. The places in space and time where one thing ends and another starts. Ask an American when summer begins and they’ll say “Ohhhh, round about Memorial day, I guess?”. Ask an Irish person when summer begins and they’ll say “01 May. Midnight. Greenwich Mean time. And not a second before.” Borders are where things get weird, where things aren’t one thing or another. Why is Halloween so creepy? Because Samhain occurs on October 31st, right when Autumn ends and Winter begins on the Gaelic calendar. It’s at times like that when the…things in the other world can cross into ours. This fear and fascination with borders runs bone deep in the Irish psyche and ties into our historic relationship with the fairy realm. My wife is a dyed in the wool atheist, but she would not enter a fairy ring if you paid her. You just don’t do that.
“IT’S COMMON SENSE PEOPLE!”
Secret of Kells is a very Irish movie, and I don’t just mean because it draws so heavily on Irish mythology, art and history and features some of the greatest Irish actors to have been claimed as British by the English media at some point. It’s obessed with lines drawn between over here and over there, between light and dark, between faith and fear and between civilization and the wild wood.
It is also feckin’ smurges.
So. Background. Secret of Kells is the product of Cartoon Saloon, which began as a loose animator’s collective in 1999 and has now produced four full length animated features, two of which have been nominated for Academy Awards. Despite this incredibly small filmography, Cartoon Saloon is already considered to be on a par with Studio Ghibli. Clearly, Irish Animation has come a long way since Daithí Lacha.
HE WAS TERRIBLE.
But is the praise justified? Yes. Is the movie as good as YES. Does it YES. Whatever hypothetical question I could ask the answer is almost definitely YES.
So a few months back I let slip that Hunchback of Notre Dame is my personal favourite Disney movie. But did you know that there are animated movies out there that weren’t created by Disney? My hand to God, it’s true. In fact, there are so many that I was actually able to throw together a list of my favourite non-Disney animated movies. Understand, I make no claim that these are the best non-Disney animated movies, just that they are the ones that have wormed their way into my tiny, blackened little mouse heart.
# 10 Gay Purr-ee, 1962, UPA
UPA are very much an also-ran in the history of American animation. They had the misfortune of trying to compete in the realm of feature length animation against Disney, and in the realm of theatrical shorts against Warner Bros. Also their most successful character was Mr Magoo.
Ha! He’s BLIND! Oh that is too fucking funny!
UPA, never able to compete with Disney in terms of money and animation quality, pioneered the technique of limited animation. But whereas later studios (cough, cough Hanna Barbera cough cough) would use this technique to flood the airwaves with cheap, awful, awful, lousy, just the worst cartoons, UPA deserve respect for turning limitation into a virtue. UPA took a minimalist and very visually striking approach to their animation, and that’s probably exemplified best here in this movie, one of only two full length theatrical animations the studio produced. The story is pretty simple. Mewsette, a naïve white farm cat, grows bored of her life on an idyllic Provencal farm and leaves for the glamour of 1890s Paris. There she falls into the clutches of the diabolical Meowrice who pretends to school her for high society whilst secretly grooming her as a mail-order bride (really). Fortunately she’s rescued by her loyal, spurned boyfriend Jean-Tom, and they all live happily ever after. Yeah, not exactly Tolstoy. So, why do I love this movie? Well, as I said, UPA were very good at compensating for their less than stellar animation by being visually striking. Take a look at this scene, where the animators depict Mewestte in the style of the great painters of the period.
Another point in its favour is some really strong musical talent. Judy Garland voices Mewsette and was able to rope Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg into the project as songwriters. You probably haven’t heard of them. They just wrote the songs for some obscure little thing called The Wizard of Oz. Real nobodies. I don’t want to oversell it, it’s not really a great movie. But there are moments where it rises to greatness.
#9 Twice Upon a Time, 1983, Korty Films, Lucasfilm
Where to start with this one? TUAT is probably the most “cult” film on this list. It looks like nothing else ever made. The dialogue is mostly off the cuff jibber-jabber by a cast of improvisational comedians. There are around three different versions, and if you try to show the original theatrical version then producer John Korty will most likely sue you. The plot is…there’s a dog who’s actually every animal and a Charlie Chaplin lookalike and they have to go into the real world to stop the king of nightmares from freezing time…or something…it’s really, really weird but also hilarious and kinda has to be seen for yourself.
#8 Howl’s Moving Castle, 2004, Studio Ghibli
Ohhh…I’m going to catch hell for this one. Yes, there is only one Studio Ghibli film on this list and it’s this one. And I know what you’re wondering; Why this and not Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Grave of the Fireflies or Tales from Earthsea? (Okay, you’re not wondering that last one). Honestly, I can’t really say. Most of Miyazaki’s films are like a gorgeous toyshop that everyone is allowed into except me. I’m like the starving urchin with his nose pressed up against the window, able to appreciate the beauty of what he’s seeing but just not able to get that incredible emotional high that his movies seem to instill in other people. Moving Castle was the first Miyazaki movie to make me feel like a Miyazaki movie is supposed to make everyone feel, where I was finally allowed into the toy shop to play. Also it has Christian Bale doing the Batman voice and that never gets old.
The Secret of Kells, 2009, Cartoon Saloon
A little national bias here, maybe, but I like to think that even if this wasn’t a hometown success story I’d still love this movie. Tom Moore and his Cartoon Saloon studio set out to make a “European Miyazaki”, drawing on Irish history, Celtic mythology and monastic art to create something that looks and feels unlike anything being made either in the States or Japan. Its also benefits from some A-grade Irish acting talent (Brendan Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan to name a few) and a surprisingly nuanced examination on the nature of faith, as both something limiting and isolating and as something joyous and inspiring. And it’s final scene, where the ancient artwork of the book of Kells is fully rendered in animation has to be seen to be believed.
Kung Fu Panda, 2008, Dreamworks
My natural Disney-snob instincts notwithstanding, I will give Dreamworks their props when I feel props are due. And this one is definitely prop-worthy. It’s really no great mystery as to why this movie works; it’s a Kung Fu animated comedy with amazing Kung Fu, great animation (seriously, Dreamworks upped their game so hard with this one) and it’s funny as hell. It succeeds at everything it sets out to do. Just, a great, fun flick. Also, saying “skidoosh” will cure whatever ails ya.
Toy Story 3 is the worst reviewed of the trilogy, only garnering a miserable 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. But I respect this movie more than any other in the Pixar canon because I know as a writer the absolute hardest part of the trade is endings. Finding a way to cap a story in a way that is satisfying unexpected and earned is the greatest challenge any writer has to face and more often than not we fail. Toy Story 3 manages the almost unprecedented feat of being a satisfying conclusion to a trilogy (seriously, think about it. Sequels that are better than the original are fairly common but how often does a threequel manage to be as good as the first two?). But more impressively, this movie takes its characters and the audience about as low and as dark a place as you can conceive, to the very lip of the inferno itself. Towards the end, I was so swept up and invested in these characters and so convinced of their peril that I actually thought Pixar was going to do it. I thought the movie would end with the toys holding hands, one last gesture of love and solidarity in the face of pitiless oblivion, and then they’d be gone.
Considering that we actually go from that to one of the happiest most, satisfying endings I can remember seeing and that it in no way feels like a cheat or a cop out? That, my friends, is truly masterful filmmaking.
Batman: Under the Red Hood, 2010, Warner Bros Animation
Ooookay. So, this will take some explaining. Alright, keep in mind this is a list of my personal favourites, I’m not going to make the case that this movie is better than Toy Story 3. And yes, I am aware that I have nominated a Batman animated film as one of my favourite movies and it doesn’t even have Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. Yes. I chose this over Mask of the Phantasm. Mock me all you want but I shall be heard. I have chosen this movie not simply because I think it’s a great Batman story, but because right after endings, twists are the next hardest thing to do well as a writer and this movie has one of the best twists I have ever seen. Seriously, if I ever teach a writing course, I will use this movie as a text on how you do a twist right. So let me set the table, and it goes without saying after here be spoilers.
The movie begins several years in the past, with Batman racing to save Robin (Jason Todd) who’s been caputred by the Joker. So far, so predictable. The trick is, this time he fails. Joker beats Robin to death with a crowbar and then blows him up because Mr. J is not known for understatement. Years later, a new criminal appears on the scene called the Red Hood, who starts systematically wiping out the Gotham criminal underworld. Batman methodically puts the pieces together and realises that the Red Hood is none other Jason himself, back from the dead (superhero heaven has no pearly gates, only revolving doors). Batman becomes consumed with guilt, convinced that Jason has come to enact vengence on him for letting him die. He finally confronts him in an abandoned warehouse and tells Jason that he’s sorry…and then this happens.
Okay, so if you couldn’t watch the video let me sum up. Jason tells Batman that he forgave him a long time ago and that he knows he did everything he could to save him. What he’s pissed about, however, is that Batman didn’t kill the Joker because of it. The Batman comics have a very set routine. Every so often the Joker escapes from Arkham asylum, hatches a new scheme, kills a bunch of people, gets stopped by Batman, gets locked up, rinse lather repeat pretty much every few years since the forties. And of course after reading enough Batman comics you’ll find yourself screaming “For the love of God JUST KILL THE BASTARD!”. Jason essentially becomes the personification of the frustration here. Why don’t you just kill him. And finally, we get an answer that actually makes sense. Because Batman knows that if he were ever to lost control like that, he wouldn’t be able to stop. Which…kind of implies that he’s one bad day away from a killing spree and probably not the best person to be engaging in a life of vigilantism but, fuck it, it makes sense.
So why does this twist work? Well, on a technical level it’s nearly flawless, it makes sense given everything we’ve seen up until now, and doesn’t require any of the players to act out of character. It doesn’t contradict the facts as we know them. But at the same time, it’s completely unexpected because at no point are we led to believe that there is a twist (unless it’s that the Red Hood is Jason and we find that out fairly early on). Because Batman assumes that Jason’s motive is revenge, because he views everything through the prism of his own guilt, we do too. Batman is such a a hyper-competent, all knowing hero that we never stop to consider that maybe he’s wrong. And lastly, it works because it’s hugely emotionally satisfying. The desire for forgiveness is one of the most powerful emotions there is. When Jason tells Batman that he’s forgiven him….my feels, as the say on Tumblr.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? 1988 , Toucstone Pictures/Amblin Entertainment
I trust I don’t have to justify this one? Great casting, gorgeous animation and a hilarious whip-smart script from an age when movies could be entertaining and still be about something (and you could ride the trolley for a nickel and young people showed you respect dagnabbit). Twenty five years later and the live-action-animation integration in this film has still to be bettered. And of course, the scariest villain that was ever snuck into a PG movie. Do you remember Judge Doom? When he killed all hope you ever had of a good night’s sleep? And he used to TALK! LIKE!!! THIIIIIIIIISSSSSSSS?????!
A Scanner Darkly, 2006, Thousand Words
Keanu Reeves plays “Fred”, a narcotics agent who’s been observing a drug dealer named Bob Arctor and his circle of friends to trace where they’re getting their supply of Substance D, an insanely potent drug that’s going through the American population like a dose of the salts. Trouble is, Fred has become so messed up from using D that he doesn’t realise that he actually is Bob Arctor. This was Robert Linklater’s second rotoscoped film after Waking Life and it’s probably the greatest adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel ever filmed, and yes, I’m including Blade Runner in that. The rotoscoping is a trippy, alienating effect that really puts you into Fred’s queasy, shifting worldview. But it’s not just a head trip, this is a beautiful, deeply compassionate film that gives a sympathetic and very credible portrayal of the horrors of drug abuse, no mean feat considering the drug in question is fictional. It also helps that many of the cast like Robert Downey Jnr and Winona Ryder know whereof they speak. And it’s not all misery either. The movie isn’t afraid to wring some very, very funny comedic mileage out of the paranoia that starts to affect Bob and his friends.
But the laughs don’t last long. From the moment the movie begins we know this won’t end well. A Scanner Darkly is a movie that takes place after the last battle has been lost. There is no more freedom, no more choice. There are only the corporations that will get you hooked. If not on D, it’ll be something else. At one point Bob asks his girlfriend “are you an addict?” and she just replies “We all are”. And yet, even in hopelessness, this movie finds beauty. And maybe that’s enough to get by.
“This has been a story about people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. I loved them all. Here is a list, to whom I dedicate my love:
To Gaylene, deceased
To Ray, deceased
To Francy, permanent psychosis
To Kathy, permanent brain damage
To Jim, deceased
To Val, massive permanent brain damage
To Nancy, permanent psychosis
To Joanne, permanent brain damage
To Maren, deceased
To Nick, deceased
To Terry, deceased
To Dennis, deceased
To Phil, permanent pancreatic damage
To Sue, permanent vascular damage
To Jerri, permanent psychosis and vascular damage …and so forth In memoriam. These were comrades whom I had; There are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The “enemy” was their mistake in playing. Let them play again, in some other way, and let them be happy.”