Friday, December 04, 2009

Two Contrasting Features

Within the space of a week, I had the opportunity to see two of this year's animated features, The Secret of Kells and Mary and Max. The first is directed by Tomm Moore of the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon and the second is the work of Australian Adam Elliot.

Both films were excellent, but for different reasons. Kells is one of the most beautifully art directed films I've ever seen. In some ways, its a feature that UPA should have made; it revels in flat design and is a riot of textures. It doesn't look like any feature that's been released to theatres in the recent past and stands out as a result.

I was frankly surprised at how expressive the animation was given the design. Some of the animators worked with a completely graphic approach while others kept to the designs, but moved the characters dimensionally. In both cases, the designs hold up and the characters come to life for the audience.

The Book of Kells is an actual illuminated manuscript of the gospels created circa 800 A.D. It currently is on display at Trinity College in Dublin. The illuminations in the book are the basis of the film's design. The film's story has to do with the people of Kells being threatened by a Viking invasion. The Abbot of Kells, himself a former illuminator, has decided that their best hope for survival is to surround their village with a wall to keep out the invaders. Brendan, the young nephew of the Abbot, is fascinated with the work of the illuminators and when an illuminator fleeing the Vikings arrives with the unfinished book, Brendan parts ways with his uncle over what their priority should be.

The film's story is not its strongest point, but it is far from weak. It is typical of coming-of-age stories where a youngster asserts his own values and attains independence from his elders. While most film protagonists perform heroic actions to defeat villains, Kells takes a more nuanced approach, counseling that sometimes flight is better than fight. The point of the film is that a society is more likely to survive by spending its resources on its art and culture rather than on defense. I wonder if this is the film makers' sly comment on the war on terror.

Mary and Max is a stop motion film about two outcast characters half a world apart. Mary is a young girl in Australia suffering from dysfunctional parents and a birth mark on her forehead which makes her the target of ridicule. Max is a middle-aged loner living in New York with a weight problem and Aspergers syndrome. These two become unlikely pen pals and manage to provide each other with comfort and advice while trying to survive in worlds where they don't fit in.

Adam Elliot previously won the Oscar for his animated short, Harvie Crumpet (2003). Like Chris Landreth (Ryan, The Spine), Elliot dwells on dysfunctional characters, but where Landreth displays them as an excuse to show off his technique, Elliot is genuinely sympathetic to his characters. The warmth he feels for them is what powers the film.

Stephen Rowley has written an excellent review of Mary and Max and his thoughts on Elliot's strengths and weaknesses mirror my own.
It is therefore not intended as a put-down to return to the thought that I started with, and note that Mary and Max is also carefully built around Elliot’s limitations. Elliot is a skilful writer and a designer, and as in his breakthrough short Harvie Krumpet he plays to those strengths by overlaying narration on top of his striking imagery. The whole story is driven by this approach, with most characters all-but-completely mute, except when we hear their written exchanges through voiceover. Elliot studiously avoids dialogue wherever possible, and he mostly makes it work because the writing is good and the approach thematically suits the story he’s telling here. Yet there are gaps (notably in Mary’s relationship with her husband) where the near-complete absence of verbal interaction between characters seems contrived and a little distracting. Actually staging a scene and telling us his characters’ feelings through actions and words, rather than a Barry Humphries voiceover, is a challenge Elliot seemingly doesn’t want to tackle.

Elliot seems, then, to be an animation director who actually animates only reluctantly, and in Mary and Max his other immense talents make it work. It will be interesting to see whether he can make a different kind of animated film, one in which he goes beyond the safety net of voiceovers and striking design. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he instead makes a Tim Burton-style transition to live-action, where he might be able to still use his strengths but shake off his limitations as an animator.
These features contrast in various ways, but I believe that they both point to viable approaches that are better than simply trying to make low budget versions of Hollywood films. Kells is based on local history and culture. Hollywood animated features regularly send their crews to foreign climes for research, but it tends to show up in art direction more than infuse the entire film. Kells is certainly more Irish than Disney's Hunchback is French.

Mary and Max could really take place anywhere. It's not location but point of view that sets this film apart. Adam Elliot's personality permeates the film. If a film has to work within a relatively low budget, a strong script and point of view can compensate for monetary limitations.

I suspect that when we look back at 2009, we'll see it as a banner year for animated features. Not only have the major studios released films (Up, Monsters vs. Aliens, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs), we've also seen new work by veteran directors like Hayao Miyazaki (Ponyo), John Musker and Ron Clements (The Princess and the Frog) and Henry Selick (Coraline). What's most exciting is that there are first features such as The Secret of Kells and Mary and Max that show that smaller players with something to say can make worthy films. That's what I find most exciting and I hope that we see more of it in the years to come.


Michael Sporn said...

Both films are strong attempts, somewhat successful, in doing something new with the feature form.

I am a strong proponent of design in animation, yet I found the Book of Kells a bit too much. The style in several places hid climaxes within the film not really revealing story points but hiding them behind design. (Can anyone tell me how the Vikings were actually defeated in the woods? The design obfuscates the action to the point of incommunication.) There were strong points I loved, but the story, for me, suffered.

I had a lot of difficulty staying interested in the story midway through Mary and Max. The VoiceOver approach gives the film a monotone that isn't completely resolved. We're endlessly TOLD what's happening instead of SHOWN it. The true charm of this film, aside from the entertaining and quirky story, was in the brilliant voiceovers by Toni Collette and particularly Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Mitchel Kennedy said...

I've been waiting to see Kells, but have not yet taken the opportunity.

Mary and Max I got to see in Ottawa. Although the story is pushed through heavy narration, more than through the characters, the film is very good.