06 July 2011

Eleanor's Secret

Eleanor's Secret (2009, Kérity, la maison des contes) is a rather charmingly-animated French film about books and the stories they contain.

The story begins with the young boy Natanaël (Nathaniel), his sister Angelica, and their parents driving to the town Kérity, where the home of their recently deceased grandmother, Éléonore (voiced by Jeanne Moreau), is located. As they approach the road sign for Kérity, Nat asks how much further, and Angélica mocks him that, if he could read, he would know that they're almost there.

At the house, Nat and Angélica's parents read them a letter from Éléonore in which she leaves Angelica a doll and Nat the key to her secret room. When Nat opens it, he is dismayed to find that it a simple study with a library attached containing all the books she used to read to him.

That night, a storm damages the roof of the home, and the family decides that, since they don't have the money to fix it, they'll have to sell. Feeling more attachment to the house than the library of books, Nat offers to let the family sell the books to a local pawn shop dealer so that they can raise the money for repairs. His father tells him to at least go and pick out one book to remember Éléonore by, and Nat again enters the library. This time, small people begin to peer out of the books from various books and fairytales like Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and even Alice and the White Rabbit from Nat's favourite story, Through the Looking Glass. It is revealed that Nat is the new keeper of their stories, and must read a magic phrase in order to keep them alive for future generations. However, when it comes to light that Nat cannot read, the Wicked Fairy calls him an imposter and, using her magic, shrinks Nat down to their size.

The antiques dealer arrives and scams the family, claiming that the collection of first editions are "too old to be worth anything" but that he'll let them know if he manages to sell any of them. Nat is too small to stop it, and ends up riding with the other characters and their books to the dealer's shop. There, Nat decides that Éléonore must have entrusted the books to him for a reason, and sets out on a journey to return home and read the magic spell to save the day. He is joined by Alice, the White Rabbit, and the man-eating Ogre.

Animation and Characters
This film was directed by veteran Disney animator Dominique Monfery, and I'm not surprised. The animation is good, but nothing revolutionary. There is an interesting use of text to shows Nat's anxiety of not being able to read, but it was already done (and perhaps even more inventively) five years earlier in an episode of Paranoia Agent. So it you're really big on cutting edge animation, this isn't going to wow you, but everything is done skillfully and I applaud it for that.

Perhaps more interesting are the character designs, as they showcase an interesting illustration style. Perhaps the best character design is the weasel of an antiques dealer, whose moustache is wonderfully expressive. In some ways, the art style reminded me a little bit of The Secret of Kells, but both certainly have their own divergent feels.

Still, The Secret of Kells seems like an interesting film to pair with this one. Both are children's movies with strong literary references. However, I feel like Kells was a bit more subtle and nuanced, while Eleanor's Secret was a bit more heavy-handed in its pro-literacy message.

Could have gone deeper
All-in-all, I liked the film, but I felt like it stopped a little short and didn't fully take advantage of what it had going on plot-wise. In the beginning, Eleanor's Secret seemed to be exploring ideas of grief through the death of Éléonore and Nat's subsequent shame at still being unable to read. Some of those early, more interestingly animated scenes definitely captured the stress and emotional turmoil Nat was feeling by using his fear of his own illiteracy as the jumping point.

However, once the tiny fairytale figures appeared, his grief seemed to all but disappear, and the adventure story took over too much. The end felt too neat and convenient. By saving the stories, everything else magically fell in to place. They even find money elsewhere to fix the house. I guess I just wanted it to keep a bit more of the darker tinge that the film started with. It could've been a great film about dealing with death and grief, but it seemed to take the easier path.

At any rate, it was still a fun movie, and I think an excellent choice for anyone looking for a film to show their kinds that will help instill in them a love of books.