Review: "The Secret of Kells"

When the 2009 Oscar nominations were announced on February 2nd, a resounding "huh?" went up amongst Oscar watchers at the inclusion of The Secret of Kells among the nominees for Best Animated Feature nominees. Few had heard of it, much less seen it, but that Oscar nomination guaranteed that a whole lot more people have heard of it now.

While there are several other overlooked films that I think would have been more deserving of the Oscar spotlight (Mary and Max, for one), seeing a small Irish gem like Kells alongside giants like Pixar's Up and Coraline is an encouraging sign for films that may not otherwise get the audience they deserve.

The Secret of Kells is a charming mix of Celtic pagan lore and Christian history, wrapped up in an animated fable about a young boy named Brendan, who lives in the medieval Irish city of Kells during the Norman invasions. His uncle, the Abbot of Kells (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), is obsessed with building a massive wall around Kells to protect it from the coming Viking onslaught. Paranoid about the dangers of the forest surrounding them, he forbids Brendan from ever venturing beyond the walls of Kells.

Brendan, on the other hand, is a curious lad, and when the mysterious Brother Aiden from the recently destroyed city of Iona carrying a legendary book, Brendan vows to do whatever it takes to help Aidan finish the book, and help spread its message of hope in the face of certain doom. This includes defying his uncle's orders to stay within the walls of Kells, and journey into the forest to collect special berries for ink. It is there he meets Aisling, a beautiful and enigmatic fairy, who aids him in his quest. But the Vikings are coming, and coming fast, and as Aisling teaches Brendan the ways of the forest, and Aiden teaches him the way of his Order, the Abbot's stubborn single mindedness threatens to destroy them all, as the path he takes can never be enough to protect them all from the Vikings, and save the fabled Book of Iona.

The film only runs a scant 75 minutes, and as such feels very slight. It is never really given the chance to fully develop itself the way a subject of this magnitude would seem to warrant. The Book of Iona, later known as the Book of Kells, was in fact an ornate collection of the Gospels, and other sacred writings, whose purpose was to inspire the people in a time of great national turmoil. Brendan's quest is, in fact, one of great historical import, but to anyone unfamiliar with the film's historical basis, its gravity isn't as apparent.

What is most striking about The Secret of Kells is its breathtaking animation. Featuring hand drawn animation inspired by the Book of Kells itself, greatly infused with Celtic designs, the highly expressionistic look of the film is without a doubt its greatest asset. This is a beautiful film, each frame a work of art unto itself. Bruno Coulais' score (performed by the band Kila), with its haunting (but never overbearing) Celtic influences greatly adds to the delicate, mystical atmosphere. There is so much to feast on here that the film's brief running time seems even more egregious, as its imagery is completely worth getting lost in.

It's hard to deny the film's charms. Its skillful balancing act of paganism and Christianity in its evocation of medieval Celtic spirituality is both fascinating and enchanting, without ever becoming what one would consider a religious film. There is a lot more going on beneath the surface here than average kiddie fare, however. Its ideas may not be fully formed or given the time they deserve in its rush to get to the end, but The Secret of Kells is a beguiling charmer. And now thanks to the Academy, it can finally have its day in the sun.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE SECRET OF KELLS; Directed by Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey; Voices of Brendan Gleeson, Liam Hourican, Mick Lally, Michael McGrath, Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney; Not Rated; Opens tomorrow, March 12, in limited release.


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