Each year I ask my students who has seen the Oscar-nominated indigenous Irish feature The Secret of Kells (2009). Each year just a few hands go up. This might be unremarkable other than that I teach at an Irish University. I’ll usually run a trailer, then, which characteristically meets with a muted response.
The film’s aesthetic is consciously modeled on that perennial tourist attraction with legitimate cultural provenance – The Book of Kells – deploying Celtic swirls and other calligraphic motifs in sumptuous visualisation of a story weaved through history and myth around the origins of illuminated manuscripts in the age of late paganism, with its wisps of the supernatural still lingering at the fringes of early Christianity. To today’s Irish University students that’s old school to the point of old hat. They are more impressed when I reveal that the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1996) was partly made in Dublin; that Japanese-American émigré Jimmy Murakami, who sadly passed away just earlier this year, was part of the Murakami-Wolf company behind the show’s production and lived a few miles down the road from where they sit.
The ‘national cinema’ debate used to define Irish film studies. What is now known as the ‘first wave’ of filmmakers, struggling for funding and an authentic Gaelic voice through the 1970s and 80s, were both heroes and villains in broader Irish culture: sometimes demanding more of Irish audiences than they were prepared to give, and yet asking questions that felt awkwardly necessary as Ireland navigated its way towards the pluralism and internationalism of the Celtic Tiger. Nowadays these debates are historical footnotes and there is less urgency around what it means to have a national cinematic identity.
The Irish animation industry was in some ways at the vanguard of the move to internationalisation, with roots in commercial advertising giving way to the establishment of large-scale multinational studio operations in the country in the 1980s. The Land Before Time (1988) was an Irish made feature film, but in spite of Irish personnel and regional production infrastructure, there was nary a whiff of indigenous identity about it. Yet the operations of Sullivan-Bluth and Murakami-Wolf trained a generation of animators that now freely operate in both the commercial and the creative demense, boasting a raft of international awards for shorts, commissions for major television series in the US and UK, and that first feature animation in The Secret of Kells.
The Secret of Kells may have erred on the traditional side, but this, too, has its place and serves its purpose. The film’s producers, Cartoon Saloon, have kept faith with the principles of a modern yet traditional national-historical aesthetic in exciting, populist illustrations for the ‘Emperor of the Irish’ exhibition in Trinity College Dublin in 2014 marking the millennium of the Battle of Clontarf. They also contributed to the compilation of animations around popular and traditional Irish songs entitled Anam An Amhráin (2010) broadcast on the Irish-language television station TG4.
This mix of the modern and the traditional still firmly veers towards heritage and cultural continuity in this kind of endeavor. Meanwhile Brown Bag Films, currently enjoying commercial success with Olivia (2009) for Nickelodeon and Octonauts (2010) for Disney, unleashed Ding Dong Denny O’Reilly’s History of Ireland (2007) where Irish history, myth, and outright blarney freely intertwined as comedian Paul Woodfull voiced his consciously inauthentic ‘tour guide’ spouting his version of Irish history in a Dublin pub, revealing an altogether more skeptical attitude to the national profile. The same company also delivered Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty (2009) where an elderly lady’s irreverent reframing of the fairytale as a fable of ingratitude and agism took on a distinctly Hiberno-English character through Kathleen O’Rourke’s vocalisations.
Brown Bag had previously flirted with inscriptive boundaries of history and identity with their charming visualisations of documentary interviews with Irish schoolchildren reciting Bible stories in the 1960s under the title Give Up Yer Aul’ Sins (2002), initially an Oscar-nominated short, followed by a TV series of the same name.
Here even the formal boundaries of representation were in play as ‘production’ errors such as a visible microphone or blurred focus signified the process of inscription itself, tracking the surface signifiers of authenticity that, as ever, belie the force of invention behind any media object.
The point of this brief blog entry is neither to serve as a flag-bearer for the Irish animation industry nor to outline its full history in a few hundred words, but to ask, in the spirit of this month’s theme, what is in play when the concept of the national is considered in the realm of animation. It is a question all the more acute given the existence of such a vital and vibrant site of contestations of cultural expectations when the live action industries continue to struggle.
Harvey O’Brien is the author of Action Movies: The Cinema of Striking Back (Columbia/Wallflower, 2012) and The Real Ireland: The Evolution of Ireland in Documentary Film (Manchester, 2004). He lectures in Film Studies at University College Dublin.