The Secret of the What?

In a remote Irish village under siege by Vikings, young Brendan is being schooled in the art of illumination by an old monk, while his uncle, the abbot in charge of protecting all the people grows increasingly impatient with his tomfoolery.

But there’s more afoot in The Secret of the Kells than meets the eye. The illumination of the book has some sort of mystical power, and when Brendan sets off to the forest to collect berries for ink, he encounters a wolf-spirit-girl, Aisling.
The two develop a relationship, even as the crisis in the town grows worse. (Actually, the rhythm and setting of the movie is remarkably similar to How To Train Your Dragon.)
If you’ve heard of this movie at all, it’s probably as the “Say what?” entry in the Oscars. You had Pixar’s Up, Henry Selick’s Coraline, Disney’s Princess and the Frog, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and…this one!
This is pretty typical Oscar stuff, of course. Monsters vs. Aliens was the #11 movie last year, grossing about $200M, but no, let’s nominate the little foreign film. (Just as a reference, Fox made about $20M, Coraline $75M, Princess $100M, and Up nearly $300M. Kells may not have made back it’s $6.5M budget.)
The other thing you might have heard about this movie is how good it looks. Let me agree that, yes, it looks good: It also looks a whole like an episode of “Samurai Jack”. It uses many of the same techniques pioneered by Genndy Tartakovsky, creator of that series, and former collaborator Craig McCracken (of the “Powerpuff Girls”).
The whole thing is in the flat UPA style—remember Mr. Magoo—that McCracken and Tartakovsky proved could actually be artistic and not just money saving, with the aforementioned shows (and others like “Dexter’s Laboratory”).
Further, Tartakovky’s trick of changing the screen shape based on the action is employed here. The image goes from 4:3 to 16:9 and even to a screen split into three parts to show different parts of the action at once.
And the Vikings (called “barbarians” here, but they have the pointy helmets) look just like villainous robots from “Samurai Jack”.
None of this to say it’s bad, but one gets the sense that a lot of the oohs and ahs from the critics may come from their lack of experience with the Cartoon Network.
It’s short. We were all kind of startled when it was over.
Of the five of us, The Old Man didn’t care for it, because he hates the style of the animation (it reminds him of the crappy cartoons of the ‘60s), and The Barbarienne had no clue what was going on.
The Boy and The Flower both liked it, as did I. But I sort of think I’m going to end up liking Monsters vs. Aliens more over time.
Oh, and if you’re interested in what The Kells are, Wikipedia is your friend.

Kung Fu Panda Express

The Flower wanted to see Kung Fu Panda and, though The Boy had resisted it, he came along with us. We had dinner out first which is always fun. I’m not sure why, except that my kids are very polite and also really enjoy it, but it’s just a blast to take them out. The Flower didn’t even eat anything, but she colored the menu and did the word search.

The movie itself? Well, Dreamworks is about the only studio that can hold a candle to Pixar in terms of animation quality. They’re also real hit-and-mostly-miss as far as story goes. (Sorry, but while I’ve enjoyed the Shrek movies, they’re horribly clichéd and don’t really stand the test of time. They’re too busy being hip.) KFP is similarly shallow–though not as tragically hip–but with some excellent choices made that buoy it up well past the usual kiddie fare.

The artwork is truly exquisite. There’s a wonderful blend of more typical CGI with a heavy eastern influence. Mulan did this well, too, but it’s more in-your-face here. And it works, even though this is a light comedy film, there’s no attempt to convey “wackiness” with the artwork.

The story concerns a panda named Po, who works with his father (a duck!) in their ancestral noodle house, but dreams of being a kung fu master. Not just a kung fu master but the kung fu master, revered by the Fighting Five. (Of course, rather than just adhere to certain fighting styles, the Fighting Five actually are the animals of those styles: tiger, crane, mantis, monkey and snake.)

Predictably, he is the kung fu master and just as predictably, he struggles through training until he blah blah blah. You know the drill. Not really the point. Every one of these movies (like this year’s Forbidden Kingdom) has to have a transformation scene where the hapless would-be kung-fu-er finds his strength in some (hopefully meaningful) way, and this movie’s approach is quite amusing and clever.

As is the whole movie. Jack Black is eminently likable, as usual, and the jokes and action were good enough to keep The Flower from too much fidgeting.

I, of course, spent the whole movie going…“Who is that?” I identified Dustin Hoffman (the master, some kind lemur-like creature) and Seth Rogen (as the Mantis) right away. Oh, and James Hong, the 50+ year veteran of TV and film, of whom everyone says “who?” when I say his name, but “Oh! That guy!” when I mention that he was on “Kung Fu” or in Big Trouble In Little China, or any of literally hundreds of other shows and movies. Wayne Knight and Michael Clarke Duncan were instantly recognizable as well.

Ian McShane (“Deadwood”, the evil tiger in this movie), I couldn’t place my finger on. David Cross (who was the Crane) drove me nuts, as his voice is very familiar, and I’m a big fan of “Mr Show”. I don’t even recognize women’s voices, honestly. Dunno why, but I didn’t place Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu or Laura Kightlinger at all. (OK, Kightlinger doesn’t have a lot of lines but I used to watch her on “Stand Up Stand Up” in the ‘90s all the time.)

Anyway, with the exception of Black–and Hoffman does all right, though he’s soooo restrained and it carries through–everyone else is disposable and feels like they got their parts out of a grab bag. (Isn’t that what they do now? Put a bunch of celebs’ names into a hat and say, “Who shall we pick for this role?”) Don’t get me wrong, they all do well, but they all could’ve been scrambled and put in different roles, too.

But not the Jables. Don’t believe me? Check out Along Came Polly sometime. Philp Seymour Hoffman is basically doing Jack Black. And while PSH is a fine actor–well, that’s what he is. Jack Black has star quality: Whether or not he can act is a separate issue, and PSH doubtless has the greater range, but if you’re going to be a disgusting slob, as in Along Came Polly, you better bring the charisma, too. They oughtta reshoot that movie and digitally put Black in there.

Similarly, this part requires a completely sincere expression of highly nerdy enthusiasm that is more lovable than off-putting, and JB is one of the few guys who seems to actually have that in him. A complete unselfconsciousness. He throws a role to his Tenacious D bandmate Kyle Gass and maybe had something to do with David Cross being in the show, since Mr. Show was a big part of JB’s climb to glory.

But I digress. Ultimately, this was a funny, fast-paced and beautiful flick I won’t mind watching again. (That’s the greatest thing animated film producers can do for parents: Make movies that don’t make you want to stab your eyes out on multiple viewings.) Unlike Dreamworks’ other stuff, I think this one may hold up.

Even The Boy enjoyed it, and thought they struck the right balance between too serious and too silly.