This Oscar-nominated animation brings early Irish literature literally to life. It defies convention because it utilizes traditional 2D artwork and not the 3D, computer-aided cartoonery that has been a staple of the past decade. Nevertheless, I would argue that director Tomm Moore's film is just as beautiful as the best 3D animation this past year, including James Cameron's Avatar.
Like Avatar, a crucial scene in this movie takes place in a huge tree and the depiction of that tree is just as spectacular, just as detailed, and just as gorgeous to behold as the one in that biggest-grossing movie of all time. The theme and plot, however, do not center on environmentalism or imperialism. Instead, this cartoon is about religion and faith. I suppose then that it makes sense that the main characters are monks living in an Ireland abbey.
The Abbot, voiced by Brendan Gleeson (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), is the leader of the abbey, which consists of the church buildings and a tiny surrounding village where people live and worship. In preparation for the coming Viking attack, the Abbot has his village people build a big, stone wall to keep the Vikings out. The Abbot believes the wall will hold and protect them. This plan is called into question when a fellow monk named Brother Aiden arrives at the abbey. Brother Aiden carries a text called "The Book of Iona," which he believes is the true path to salvation.
If you're not from Ireland or have never studied Irish history, then you probably don't know that "The Book of Iona" was simply another name given to this particular, Christian Bible. The text was named for the place where that Bible was first written, Iona, which is an island between Ireland and Scotland. The text is just a manuscript. It was never completed and only contains the four Gospels of the New Testament. Yet, it's lavishly decorated in Latin and Insular art. The book was taken to Kells in the 9th century. Kells is on the east coast of Ireland, just north of Dublin.
It is known that the book was stolen from Kells and later returned. The exact details of how the book got to Kells and what happened to it after it was taken are not known for sure. This animated film is one interpretation, a highly fantastical interpretation, a fun interpretation and certainly a good-looking interpretation, but, an interpretation nonetheless, a best guess if you will. According to writer-director Tomm Moore, a young, ginger-haired boy named Brendan was the one who stole the book.
How he stole the book and why is where Moore takes liberties and clear flights of whimsy. Moore doesn't make Brendan a thief. Yes, he takes the book, but only to protect it. He draws comparison to Denzel Washington's character in The Book of Eli, but Brendan is not as violent. He's merely a humble servant who's taken a strong interest in the book.
That doesn't mean that there isn't violence. When the Vikings attack in their creepy, black and red, the violence is potent. It's too bad that Moore left the Vikings as faceless monsters. It's too bad that he didn't give them personalities or even dialogue to perhaps further his point of the importance of religion and faith.
Moore embraces a love of animals. The film starts out with a literal wild goose chase. The monks pursue the white bird for its quill feathers. Brendan is himself later chased by wolves. The big oak tree is populated with all kinds of creatures like owls, and towards the climax, the harbinger of the Vikings are black crows.
However, the animal of most significance is a cat named Pangur Ban. The cat looks like an all-white Turkish breed with one green eye and one blue eye. Pangur Ban becomes the wordless companion to Brendan and an unlikely sounding board. The cat is like Cheeta from the Tarzan movies. A special song is even dedicated to the cat. According to Celtic literature, "Pangur Ban" was the name of an old Irish poem about a cat that belonged to a monk.
I really wish that Moore hadn't made this film so short. He introduces us to Aisling, a forest fairy or sprite that helps Brendan to protect the book and escape unharmed from the Vikings attack. She's the Eva to his WALL-E. Aisling is literally a breath of magical fresh air, but she's given short shrift. I would have liked to have seen her innocence and naturalism more in this story.