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Eleanor's Secret (2009)

There is something timeless and universal about fairy tales.  There is also, for me, something special about an animated fairy tale that I connect with more than its live-action sibling.  As children we spend many hours playing make-believe, exploring our worlds in new ways and testing boundaries.  What if fairy tale characters were real and it was your job or task to save all of them so that everyone, young and old, all over the world could continue to enjoy them?  Would you rise to the challenge and overcome the most challenging of personal circumstances to achieve it?

From the first frame of Eleanor's Secret I knew this was a European, likely a French production.  There is just something different about animation produced (and conceived) in Europe compared to that conceived and produced by the US or even Japan.  There is just something that I can't put my finger on that lead me down that route.  It is a great example of the kinds of animated features that are being made, effectively, on our door-step.  Anyway, Eleanor's Secret (or Kérity, la maison des contes as it was originally titled) is a French-Italian animated film from 2009.  It was released in the UK in 2011 on DVD following a short showing in the cinemas but, as yet, has had no general release in the US.  (As much as I enjoy seeing features on a big screen, this worked nicely when watched at home with nothing lost in the process.)  The film was directed by Dominique Monféry from a screenplay by Anik Leray and Alexandre Reverend.

Eleanor's Secret is a fairy tale with quarreling siblings, discovery, accidents, magic and a family at its core.  It starts with the family travelling by car to the house of their now deceased relative, Aunt Eleanor.  On the journey, Nathaniel (who is 7) is teased by his older sister Angelica that he has issues with reading.  He has no issues with his imagination and lives life as if it is one adventure tale, something I remember doing at that age.  Upon arriving at the house, Nathaniel and Angelica go and explore their new house but there is one room locked that they cannot enter.  Later that day the family read a letter from the aforementioned Aunt Eleanor where Nathaniel is given the key to this locked room whilst Angelica is given a traditional, ornate doll.  Behind the door is an immense library of books (the sort of room I would love to have!) for Nathaniel which makes his sister very jealous.  Nathaniel barely reads, if he can at all, so why did he get it and not her?  She was not impressed.  To be honest, he was not impressed either.  After a storm damages the house Nathaniel says that his parents can sell the books to make repairs to the house.  This is made all the easier after the local junk-dealer (Picault) visits and says he'll take them from the family to sell them.

Within the library something seems to be ... different.  There are voices and the books seem to move.  On one trip to visit the library the characters from the books emerge as Nathaniel has been chosen by Eleanor to be their champion and custodian.  All he has to do is read the saying on the door and children across the world will continue to have fairy tales.  He has until noon to read it aloud but if he does not, then all the fairy tales will vanish from the world and children will only have factual books.  After being shrunk by a spell cast by the bad fairy, who mocks Nathaniel for struggling to read the saying, Picault returns.  *He* sees the books are all first editions and takes them all to his shop to sell.  Nathaniel must escape from the shop, travel back to the house, get to the library and read the saying before noon.  It is definitely going to be an adventure.

At its core this is a family-friendly adventure.  Whilst the story and adventure are being set up there are some lovely family moments that set up the relationships, particularly between Nathaniel and Angelica.  You can certainly sense the animosity, I mean, *he* got the library and he doesn't even read, or maybe can't, or maybe...  The family dynamics are well realised and I got the sense that the characters were believable.  During the early scenes events are set in motion that have significance later.  There is a particularly fun scene on the beach which encapsulates for me the joy of Eleanor's Secret, where every aspect of the film coalesce perfectly.  Inevitably there is a Borrowers feel to the story and adventure once it gets going.  This is something that cannot be escaped because of the shrinking of Nathaniel but I really enjoyed the fun take on this idea, suggesting a tale of fairy tales and stories for children all wrapped up in another tale.

Throughout the tale the concern over Nathaniel's reading ability is raised many times an not once does it try to explain it or define it.  It treats it as a complex and complicated issue for the subject *and* the family.  It uses animation for what it is good at, showing what it might be like for Nathaniel.  One night he dreams where he appears to be floating on a sea of letters, or is surface of the sea the page of a book?  Another time it shows him almost drowning in letters and pages from books.  Not once does it pass judgement however or take a particular moral stance, it lets the story and characters take their natural course.

The animation is clean, crisp and smooth.  There is a nice natural quality to how the human and fairy tale characters move.  The children are imbued with this sense of energy and life whilst the adults have that relaxed "we're on holiday by the sea" gait.  The adults have relaxed and calm movements that I totally bought into.  The gestures and energy of children are captured beautifully and as they are the main focus it is lovely to watch.

The style of the background and "mechanical" animation reminded me very much of The Illusionist and in some ways Eleanor's Secret suffers from a similar set of problems.  The motion of the vehicles just felt out of place again.  We see all this lovely work and then a car moves and it lacked the life the rest of the scene was conveying.  The vehicle design fitted but it had little weight and was just ... too smooth.  Given that these films were made at a similar time it is possible this is an artefact of the tools and packages available at the time.  I also imagine that this is something very difficult to get right.  There are also similarities with a Cat in Paris in the way it was shaded and the way perspective is portrayed within the towns and cities.  Here though the shading doesn't have that pulsating, vibrating aspect that was present in a Cat in Paris and so is much more appealing to look at.

I really enjoyed what the team did with the fairy tale characters.  Because of Disney (and this is not a go at them as they have helped give these tales a sense of permanence and brought them to such a wide audience over the years) we have had a set of accepted representations and versions of fairy tale characters and their stories.  I really liked seeing them in a different way where they could do something different.  For example, Pinocchio is a very wooden and simple puppet (not human-like at all), Peter Pan is more of a wild-child (with a very naughty shadow), Alice is a very proper English girl and the Wicked Fairy is oddly sympathetic.  It feels like the characters conform to their more literary forms that what we are used to these days but we know exactly who they are.  A friend visited whilst I was watching and after only a quick look at the TV before I paused it they went "oh, that's Alice from Alice in Wonderland" and they got this only from a snippet of dialogue and a quick look.  She is a very prim and proper English girl without any reckless behaviour.  Of all of the literary characters we meet my favourites were the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland who could have so easily become annoying with his level of energy but was used in just the right amount.  He really represented that idea of "illustration come to life".  The other two were Red Riding Hood and the Wolf who seemed to be best friends who work together.  No attempt was made to make the wolf look life-like, he looked just like an illustration should.  I think that is what I liked so much about the fairy tale cast, they looked like the illustrations come to life - a set of lines and colour rather than something that has to look realistic.

The fairy tale characters feel like a community in their own right.  There is a lovely moment in the story where the fairy tale characters all band together to throw a spanner in the works of the sale of their books.  The shopper opens to beautiful illustrations of fairy tales jumbled together which is at odds with them supposedly being first additions.

A minor niggle with me was the voice cast for the adults.  The performances were good but for some reason, I felt that the adult voices just didn't fit.  It is very much set in France but, because the accents varied for the four adults, it felt out of place and homeless.  The voice acting for the children was nice.  You definitely got the sense that they were different ages, had experienced different things and that one was more the dreamer than the other.  The voices of the fairy-tale characters were spot on.  They had a quality to them that suggested a storyteller giving the character a voice without going into a stereotype.

Eleanor's Secret is more than just the sum of its parts.  The designs of the "human" characters are fine.  They show a set of characters and at times reminded me a bit of a Cat in Paris.  Each human character is distinct but nothing about their appearance really gives you much of an insight into what they might be like (except the antique/junk dealer Picault - he looked dodgy and sleazy with an exceptionally expressive mustache).  The locations like the beach and house are beautifully realised.  You get a real sense of scale and wonder when the children are running about the house compared to the adults.  You also get the feeling that the library is immense and a treasure trove that has been lovingly looked after.  The look of the fairy tale characters is charming and it does not go for the familiar Disney-like representations (as written above).  It is when all of these aspects come together that the film really shines.  It is a lot of fun to watch these fairy tale characters have to interact with the real world, where they are relying on a real-world hero to save them.  The locations become like battlefields or countries that need to be crossed.  And with all that is the constant sense that something is at stake.  When everything comes together you really care what happens.

The whole production felt like a well-loved fairy-tale for children.  Once it got going I found myself engrossed and totally absorbed by the situation and events.  I "oohed",  "aaahhed" and "oh no!-ed" in all of the right places and found myself caught up in the moment.  It has such a simple premise upon which positive and uplifting ideas can be draped without detracting from or obscuring the story.  I liked the positive messages that I took from it, I felt uplifted when the credits ran.

Eleanor's Secret is a treat to watch that the whole family, children and adults of all ages can enjoy.  It balances adventure, peril, triumph in the face of adversity, belief in yourself and acceptance of others to create wonderful tale that sweeps you along with it.  The animation is fluid and serves the story well.  The character designs are simple and distinct within the feature but are let down not in look but in the voices of the adults which didn't fit for me and some "weightless animation".  That said, it is an uplifting tale that will bring out the inner child in all of us.

Eleanor's Secret is available on DVD in the UK from Soda Pictures and on DVD and digital in the US from the New Video Group.