I remember the morning that Oscar nominations came out and hearing which films were up for the Best Animated Feature, completely perplexed when The Secret of Kells was announced. I had been nodding my head in a gesture of agreement until that moment, having never heard the film’s title before in my life. Well, thanks to the 360|365 George Eastman House Film Festival, I was able to finally enter Tomm Moore’s Celtic world at the time of the legendary Book of Kells’ creation. Probably the most famous illuminated text in existence, Moore, along with screenwriter Fabrice Ziolkowski, have crafted a mythology around its birth—the secret of their title being how a young orphan boy named Brendan and his wood nymph friend Aisling were instrumental in its survival at a time of utter slaughter by the hands of Vikings/Pagans, destroying everything in their wake. It’s a tale of the arts versus military security, on whether it is more important to spend resources on a wall that may only delay the inevitable invasion at hand or on a manuscript that will unite a people and preserve a heritage worthy of death in order to protect it.
The story itself is nothing spectacular as it pretty much uses the age-old story of a boy becoming a man as he learns from a sage old voice what life is truly about, rebelling against the parental figure that has been caring for him his whole life. Add in a fantastical creature like Aisling, an otherworldly entity that can talk to nature and soothe its more dangerous inhabitants and voila. Disney has done this type of fictional narrative for decades now, but never have they allowed their hand drawn, two-dimensional animation look so spectacular in a hyper-stylized splendor. The visuals are what sets Kells apart from anything else released in 2009, leaving its mark on the world as a piece of art unafraid to use the technique and aesthetic it talks about as the storytelling. Everything put onscreen carries the essence of the drawings in the sacred Book of Kells, (don’t miss a great animated look at the Chi Ro page from the book brought to life right before the end credits); utilizing the same style its Irish monk creators did around 800 AD. This film becomes more a testament to the precise detail and impressive artistry of the book than an attempt to tell a great children’s story. The fact it does both only adds to its pedigree and enjoyment.
It is a completely Irish endeavor, so don’t be surprised if you can’t recognize any of the voices, besides Brendan Gleeson as Abbot Cellach, uncle to young Brendan (Evan McGuire). But don’t let that discourage you; each voice actor does a wonderful job portraying this community of monks looking to fortify Kells from the same insurgents that recently destroyed the city of Iona. The greatest illuminator the world had known fled that city just in time, bringing with him the unfinished manuscript, then known as the Book of Iona. His arrival occurs right after the quartet of bumbling, comic relief monks finished telling Brendan about Brother Aidan, so of course they are in awe to find the legend in the flesh and at arm’s length. Voiced by Mick Lally, although I could have sworn the voice was Brian Cox’s, he is the sole voice of reason in the now totalitarian state formed by the Abbot, who forces he and his cat Panger to stay in the scriptorium while wall fortifications made sure the ‘precious book’ would be safe. We never do find out what in the Abbot’s past caused him to turn so jaded and untrusting, but this ex-illuminator could do nothing but rule with an iron fist now, even locking his nephew away in a cellar so he wouldn’t enter the forbidden forest again.
No lock could keep him away, however—not with Aisling, (a great childlike performance with the perfect amount of stubbornness and authority despite Christen Mooney’s girlish voice), on his side. The one instance of song in the film, she transforms Panger into a malleable visage she can charm like a snake to free her brave friend, allowing him to go back into the woods and find the eye of the ‘Dark One’, a crystal with the magnifying power necessary to complete the drawings in the book. Aidan’s own was lost in his escape from Iona—a beautifully animated sequence at the start of the film with ocean wave imagery reminiscent of Katsushika Hokusai’s famous The Great Wave off Kanagawa, tumultuous and frenetically paced, showing the full capacity of the unique visual aesthetic used throughout. Between the Dark One’s lair and the menacing, blacked out, bull-horned Vikings, I would take pause when thinking about bringing a young child to the film. The imagery can be a bit frightening, but when the story’s ultimate goal is to show how a book that could turn those horrors into the light of optimism and hope was created, you do need evil to live up to its name.
The Secret of Kells is only around 77 minutes, but it does pack a lot into that timeframe. Brendan’s evolution and help from his monk friends in order to subvert the authority of the Abbot are crucial to his becoming the man he grows up to be, the driving force in the Book of Kells’ completion. Aidan is only in Kells for a briefly before the Vikings arrive, so there isn’t much time to win the boy over and discover his true artistic potential, nor for the Abbot to face his own darkness and have a chance to conquer it before it’s too late. The fact that we are able to have such stunning imagery tell the story serves as a metaphor for the book itself, showing how effective our senses can be at enhancing what is otherwise straightforward. The Book of Kells isn’t necessarily known for its tales of the New Testament as much as for its artistic flourishes and incomparable beauty. Moore’s film is similar in that while I found Brendan’s fantastical journey endearing and memorable, it was nowhere near as powerful as the indelible mark left by the stunning swarm of butterflies, the brutal reds and yellows of Pagan destruction, or the textured marbleization superimposed as patches of light on the flat cells of animation. It’s the perfect Celtic look and feel to create awareness for one of the most famous Irish works of art; you haven’t seen anything quite like it before.
The Secret of Kells 8/10