Ever since I saw the trailer on Twitch I’ve been eager to see The Secret of Kells (2009), an Irish-French-Belgian animated film about a young monk running around in the woods, as well as his and other people’s efforts to save the Book of Kells from evil Vikings. Here’s why:
I know, right?
Well, I watched it Saturday and I had mixed feelings. It is even more breathtakingly gorgeous than the trailer reveals, which is awesome–it’s not like they put the pretty scenes in there and the rest is sloppy. It’s a total omg!-fest for fans of Irish stuff, medieval manuscripts, abbeys, vikings, all that sort of thing. I mean, for ultimate Hibernophile-squee, there is a character named Aisling and she uses her magic powers to great effect while she sings a song. Woo! And yet, for me at least, The Secret of Kells had substantially less cross-appeal than other films intended for a younger audience, like, say, Ponyo. I was surprised by this, since, well, I mean. . . you saw the trailer.
I think the lack of resonance was, for me, largely due to what I felt was a whisper-thin plot, a clunky script, and a dearth of compelling non-magical female characters. They are complaints that feed one another, in the end. And I KNOW ALREADY that this is a kid’s movie, but I still feel like it bears a bit of scrutiny since by all accounts I should be typing up a big old praise-fest for this film.
Here’s a not-too-spoilery plot setup: Brendan is a young monk who wants to be an illuminator. His uncle, the Abbot, used to be an illuminator, but now is consumed by his obsessive desire to build a wall strong enough to keep out the aforementioned evil Vikings, and is also so scared of Vikings that he’s demanded Brendan stay within the walls of the Abbey. Anyone who’s ever once seen a kid’s movie can guess what happens: Brendan disobeys; plot ensues.
Now, to be entirely fair to my complaint regarding female characters, I thought most of the characters were ossified and lacking any sort of meaningful three-dimensonality. Stern Abbot is stern; Encouraging Monk is encouraging. Italian Monk is Italian, Moorish Monk is Moorish, Evil Vikings are evil, Whimsical Forest-Spirit is whimsical. The plot happens because it happens, not because of real character development except sorta-kinda for Brendan. He grows during the course of the film, literally and figuratively, but only a little.
I was, of course, most bothered by this when it came to the (lone) female character. The ghostly girl you saw in the trailer is the aforementioned Aisling, a standard forest sprite-type who helps Brendan when he makes his first venture into the woods around the Abbey. She is, quite seriously, the only female character in the entire movie. . . which just seemed weird to me because sure, the action takes place at the Abbey of Kells, but it’s filled with refugees! Surely there must be a plucky adventurous refugee girl somewhere there they could’ve give a role to? Because the way it comes across is Standard Kid’s Movie Gender Breakdown: the Boy Character is active, comprehensible, intellectual, questioning, and driven by morality; the Girl Character is unknowable, giggling, whimsical, static, and though a bazillion times more powerful, way more of a fraidy-cat than the Boy Character.
For example, there’s a scary old god who haunts the woods for An Important Plot Reason I shan’t reveal here. Of course, Aisling tells us why she won’t go and why Brendan shouldn’t (one guess as to whether or not he does):
So yeah, given that Aisling is an ancient and wise spirit with powerful magics at her disposal, it just comes across as some kwizatz haderach nonsense. I mean. . . really. Brendan is an 8 year old chump who’s never left the abbey where he grew up. AND YET! Somehow he has what it takes, of course, and blah blah boycakes. Paired with the angsty “A Serious Man’s Serious Expectations For His Successor” theme that takes up so much screentime I felt totally unable to find emotional purchase in the movie.
Which, given the visuals, wasn’t a complete deal-breaker. . . I could sit back and let the gorgeousness pour over me again and again and again. I just wanted The Secret of Kells to be more than that. I mean, the complaints I’m making about Aisling could be applied 100% to Ponyo’s character in Ponyo. . . but Ponyo isn’t the only girl in that film. She isn’t put in the position of Token Girl Who Represents Her Sex because we have, among others, the little girls at Sosuke’s school, we have Lisa, Sosuke’s mother, who is a complicated, engaging character, we have many older women at the retirement home, etc. In fact, pains are taken to “other” Ponyo so that we keep in mind that she is a fish and not a little girl. Aisling doesn’t get anything close to that sort of nuanced treatment, and I kind of wish she did.
In the end, however, I feel that The Secret of Kells is a worthwhile film and I recommend it (with reservations). It is just my personal opinion that contemporary films that tokenize women and people of color should be (gently) called out for doing such when it seems to be oversight (in the case of Kells) as opposed to sexist malice, which is not at all what I felt was happening here. I’m not saying they should’ve made, I dunno, Brendan a girl who wants to be an illuminator, but is hamstrung by her sex because Monks Are Sexist or something. And, though I found Aisling to be slightly too precious, I’m not saying they should have cut her character. I simply wish they chosen to include a human girl who, like Brendan, was interested in the world, and who had goals and desires and a well-rounded psychology. Then again. . . I kind of wish that same thing for all the rest of the characters.