We continue our series of reviews chronicling all of the (non-Studio Ghibli) animated films distributed by GKIDS Films — some of the most original and breathtakingly beautiful animated films from around the world — and how they hold up for a young American audience.
We’re traveling chronologically (the entire retrospective is found here), and this time we’ve got…
Eleanor’s Secret (2009): Dominique Monféry, director
What’s it about?
Eccentric aunt Eleanor has passed away. Seven-year-old Nat (who is a reluctant reader) has vivid, happy memories of times spent by her side as she read enchanting stories from her vast collection of books. As he and his family arrive at Eleanor’s home to settle affairs, they discover that Eleanor has left her entire library to him.
Even though he cherishes his memories of those books, he’s frustrated by his inability to read the books himself. His parents, therefore, plan to sell the collection to a local antiques dealer (who has a less-than-sterling reputation among the neighbors). However, Nat soon discovers that the library – and all the books inside – hold a special, magical secret.
The books are all original first editions of the world’s most popular stories (thus the antique dealer’s interest), and the characters on those pages come to life! But there’s a catch…isn’t there always? If the books leave the library, they will disappear forever. It then falls on Nat, who has been entrusted as caretaker of the library, to return the books to the library, read the magic words, and keep the characters alive for future generations.
What are the cultures at play? And how about the languages?
The story ostensibly takes place in Brittany, along the French coast, but it could just as easily be set anywhere. There’s no deep cultural context for the story, and there’s really nothing specific a viewer needs to know in advance to understand. The storybook characters that come alive are almost universally known, including Alice, Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and Pinocchio.
Eleanor’s Secret is a French film that had a limited release in the UK and no general theatrical release in the United States. The DVD has both French and English audio tracks, and both are very well done. However, the English dub is potentially confusing as there’s a mix of accents. British, American, and Irish accents all pop up in various characters.
Will my kids like it?
Very likely. This film, as opposed to some other films distributed by GKIDS, firmly target a younger audience. Nat works with Alice (from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and is our hero. Interestingly, the “villain” in this story is actually Nat’s illiteracy. He struggles to read, and that’s what’s essentially holding him back from saving everyone right away.
Throughout the film, Nat struggles not only against the primary obstacle of retrieving the books from the antiques dealer but also against his older sister (who relentlessly teases him), his inability to read, and his feelings of loss for Aunt Eleanor. Young kids (especially younger siblings) may be able to relate to Nat and what he has to face.
The ultimate message here, even though it’s couched in a magical fantasy, is the importance of reading. The one sentence Nat needs to read aloud in order to save the library is rather simple, and most kids will be able to read it right away. Because of this, there’s the danger that even young kids (who are able to read) might get frustrated with Nat and not understand or appreciate the journey he must go through.
Will I like it?
This one’s a bit iffier. Like I said, Eleanor’s Secret really targets a younger audience, almost to the detriment of older kids and adults. The film establishes this wondrous, fantasy world inside the library where famous storybook characters come to life, but those characters spend most of the film as captives in the antique shop. They’re just supporting cast, and the filmmakers don’t do much to make this conceit pay off. The characters simply become caricatures.
The traditional, hand-drawn animation is beautiful, and the film is a joy to watch. So, from an artistic perspective, it’s absolutely worth watching. However, the dialogue is somewhat banal in places, and the pacing seems to drag a bit throughout.
It’s a good film to watch with your kids, but I don’t know that I’d necessarily recommend it for adults by themselves. There are far better animated films that were made with an adult audience in mind (to varying degrees).
Is there anything objectionable for young kids?
Not really. Nat faces some mild danger during his rescue mission (to save the books) when he gets shrunk down to miniature size, but there’s really nothing objectionable here for any age.
How can I see it?
The film is available on DVD (no blu-ray) and can be ordered from the usual places, including Amazon. It’s also available on Amazon Instant Video (and is currently free for Prime members). The DVD doesn’t have any special features to speak of; it includes the theatrical trailer for this film and a few other GKIDS titles.
Eleanor’s Secret is a beautiful diversion and well worth its 80-minute run time. It’s not one of the best films GKIDS has distributed, but since the film originally received no U.S. theatrical release, it’s great to see it available here, at the very least.
You certainly could do a lot worse for family movie night, and if you have a reluctant reader in the house, the film really does have a lovely message.