The Secret of Kells,
directed by Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey
(Flatiron, 2009)

Compared to the textured, three-dimensional marvels that are the hallmark of modern animation, the characters of The Secret of Kells are nothing special.

The figures are exaggerated and uninteresting, if you want to be honest. No one on the screen is in danger of being mistaken for a real person.

Nonetheless, the art here is fantastic. It's not the people so much as the landscape they inhabit, the trees that surround them, the winds that blow through the air.

Drawing inspiration from The Book of Kells, an illuminated text from 8th-century Ireland that remains even today a visual benchmark of illustration, the story here centers around Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), a young boy who lives at the religious -- and surprisingly racially diverse -- community at Kells, under the rigid control of his uncle, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson). His life there is fairly dull, although there is an entertainingly diverse brotherhood in evidence, until Brother Aidan (Mick Lally) arrives, the survivor of a Viking raid on Iona, carrying the unfinished pages of his illuminated Gospels.

Brendan is mesmerized by the work and proves to be both a helpful procurer of rare dyes and a budding young prodigy when it comes to illustration -- a gift Aidan's aging hands have lost. But Cellach is focused entirely on the erection of a circular wall around the community, which he believes will protect them from the Northmen should they attack.

Of course, it won't.

Brendan's defiance of his uncle requires secret visits to Aidan's chambers, as well as surreptitious excursions into the forbidden woods for ingredients. There, he meets a mysterious elfin wolf-girl, Aisling (Christen Mooney), who aids him in his quest.

The story itself is fairly simple. There is little action or tension as Brendan's story advances, and the violence and danger that do present themselves later in the movie are more abstract than gory or scary. Very young children might be frightened for a few moments, but it will pass quickly. The ending, which comes rather abruptly, is also vaguely dissatisfying.

The character of fairy-like Aisling, as well as references to the evil, pre-Christian god Crom Cruach, provides solid links between the growing Christian faith in Ireland and its pagan past. The music is entertaining throughout.

But the real strength here is the animation -- hand-drawn, by the way, not computer-generated -- which matches the simplistic and stylized appearance of the people with extraordinary and fluid illustrations in the book. The depiction of various elements in nature, often symmetrical and kinetic, reflect elements of the book and provide a bridge between Brendan's "real" world and the symbolism of his work.

It is, on whole, a vibrant production, a visual treat that feeds the senses. The plot here is secondary to the package, and I encourage people to give this one a look.

Oh, and there's not a single fart joke in the entire thing. I didn't think they made animated films without fart jokes these days. What a joy!

review by
Tom Knapp

3 December 2011

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