Image Entertainment // 2009 // 104 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // August 16th, 2010
A magical story of an unlikely friendship.
Skellig began as a children's novel written by UK author David Almond in the late '90s. It won several awards, including the Carnegie medal and the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year. It was later turned into a play, an opera, and, most recently, a movie made in association with the British television channel, Sky1. Like the book it's based on, the film is a quiet meditation on faith, family, and nature. Unfortunately, someone decided that American viewers wouldn't be familiar enough with Almond's book, and that a movie called Skellig wouldn't have much of a shot in the home video market. So that same someone renamed it Skellig: The Owl Man, setting the title in a font ripped straight from the Harry Potter movies. That decision will sell a few more copies, but at the movie's expense. Those three little words rob Almond's work of its power, not only by spoiling a major plot point, but also by tricking viewers into thinking this is some kind of action-packed epic, instead of the thoughtful fantasy it really is.
Michael (Bill Milner, Pop Art) and his parents have traded their tiny apartment for a dilapidated house, thinking that the additional room will help after Michael's mother, Louise (Kelly Macdonald, Trainspotting), gives birth to his baby sister. But the house needs more work than his father, Dave (John Simm, Life on Mars) thought. While cleaning the kitchen, Louise goes into premature labor. Michael's sister is born, but with complications that leave her survival uncertain. Meanwhile, Michael discovers someone living in the shed behind their house: a cantankerous man (Tim Roth, The Incredible Hulk) with odd eyes, arthritis, and an appetite for Chinese food and brown ale. With the help of a free-spirited new friend, Mina (Skye Bennett, The Pillars of the Earth), Michael uncovers the man's strange secret and forge a unique bond.
That secret, of course, is blown long before you pop the Blu-ray into your player. In the movie -- and in Almond's original book -- the true nature of Skellig is kept hidden until well into the story. If you can keep the Blu-ray case, disc art, and menus hidden from anybody watching the movie, they'll see a beautiful, if slow-paced, gem of a film that leaves big questions refreshingly open to interpretation. What was the last family movie to do that?
Skellig was made for television. Because it was made for British television, it's a full-scale production. The cast, sets, and special effects are kept to a minimum, but the reserved approach never comes across as cheap. Because Skellig is a small, quiet story about paying attention to the world around you, it takes its time getting to any sort of action. The pacing certainly sets it apart from the ADD world of most children's movies. The trade-off, though, is that your kids might get bored long before the movie takes off, and that's not entirely your kids' fault. British or not, Skellig is a slow burn that holds back the biggest bang until the very end.
The film is packed with scenes of people talking to each other. Given the world-class cast, that's more than OK. Bill Milner, who made his feature film debut in the 2007 indie hit Son of Rambow, proves that some child actors can actually act. Michael is the heart of this story, and it wouldn't work if we didn't believe him. Milner is helped in that regard by British veterans John Simm and Kelly Macdonald play parents dealing with a sick newborn. Their emotional journey fuels Michael's desire to help Skellig recover. Even though he spends most of the movie huddled in corners, Tim Roth brings a difficult character to life. Weary and long-since resigned to death, Skellig's turnaround is the key to healing this broken family. The only character who gets short shrift is Mina. You get the feeling she is far more important in the book than in the movie, and that the constraints of a two-hour runtime keep her from being a bigger part of the film. As it is, she mostly pops in to lecture Michael about the beauty of nature, and to quote William Blake.
Skellig was one of three big-budget HD films commissioned by Sky1, and the investment shows on Blu-ray. The 1080p 1.78:1 image is sharp and rich, with natural colors. The detail, which starts to fall apart in the dark shadows that abound in the movie, comes through in force in the close-ups. Most of those close-ups are of bugs and other creepy-crawlies, though, so that extra detail might not be a bonus to everyone. The DTS-HD Master Audio track does a solid job with everything from dialogue to music to environmental touches. It's crisp, but not terribly aggressive in the use of surround effects. There are no extras on the disc -- a missed opportunity for the film's creators to talk about the book on which it was based.
Skellig: the Owl Man is an intelligent family film with a terrible name. My advice? When you buy the movie, grab a sharpie as well. Then when you get home, cross out "The Owl Man" wherever it appears (except maybe your TV screen). Not only is the subtitle unnecessary, it spoils the plot, sets up false expectations, and has almost nothing to do with the movie. Here's a spoiler: he's not an owl! Skellig is too slow-paced and potentially scary for young kids, but is a welcome change of pace for parents looking to satisfy a child with grown-up tastes.
Not guilty! Also not about an owl!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG