As today is Saint Patrick’s Day, I thought the 2009 animated feature The Secret of Kells would be an appropriate movie to watch and review. After all, it has some similarities to the holiday. Both are rooted in Irish tradition, both involve a great deal of the color green, and both involve the mixing of Christian tradition with Celtic lore: St. Patrick and leprechaun symbolism for the holiday, and a woodland fairy in the film, which is about the creation of the illuminated manuscript the Book of Kells.
It’s a purely fictional tale (as if you couldn’t guess by the fairy), but the Book of Kells is a real item, an illustrated edition of the four Gospels of the New Testament. Directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey decided to create a film which used animation design based on the illuminated pages of the book, giving the film a look that is rather unlike any other animated feature I’ve seen.
An apple a day keeps the abbot at bay?
The use of a medieval art style as the base, with the flattened perspective and geometric emphasis, does take a bit of getting used to as an animation style. It’s almost Cubist. But I found myself adjusting to it in short order, which was helped by the fact that there is a lot of detail work in the imagery (again, like the illuminated pages it’s inspired by). There’s scarcely an inch of space in the backgrounds that isn’t covered with details. Small incidental objects, colorful patterns, and symbols abound; even the snowflakes are depicted with Celtic knots. So although it’s a strange-looking film, it’s a pretty one as well.
The story concerns a young boy named Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire, in his first and sole role so far; in fact, this was the first role for both of the younger characters in the film, leading me to suspect that the young voices are actual young voices and not older actors trying to sound young). Brendan is twelve years old, and is growing up in the abbey of Kells, under the watchful eye of his uncle, the Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson). The Abbot is concerned about the invasions of the Northmen, and is putting his monks hard at work at building an impenetrable wall around the town to keep the invaders out. There is no time for work on anything else, not even gathering supplies to write their manuscripts, and Brendan is forbidden to exit the walls.
The Abbot has more faith in his walls than in his faith.
Brendan’s life changes with the arrival of Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), a monk from the island of Iona, and his cat Pangur Ban. Besides his cat, Aidan brings two things of importance; word that the Northmen are coming, and the illuminated book he has been working on. Aidan is a master illuminator, but his eyes and hands are starting to fail him, and so he turns to Brendan as an apprentice. But with the Northmen invading, the Abbot is doubly concerned with keeping Brendan and the monks on task with building the wall, and forbids Brendan from assisting Aidan. Brendan, of course, sneaks out to gather some berries for ink, and it is in the forest where he encounters Aisling (Christen Mooney), a white-haired fairy who shows him the forest and begins giving assistance in his attempts to complete the book. Her motives for helping out are never quite explained, but she seems mostly motivated by curiosity.
Or perhaps just the chance to behave curiously.
As the film runs only a little more than an hour, it doesn’t have a particularly complex plot, but it’s quickly-paced and entertaining. The voice actors all sound good, and there’s a lot of beautiful music playing in the background throughout the film. And the visuals are worth checking out on their own if you’re a fan of animation; as I said above, while they may take a little getting used to, there’s nothing else quite like them in animation. The forest scenes are green and lush, the town scenes are humble but no less detailed, and when the animators want a scene to look dark and scary or mysterious and mystical, they manage all of that skillfully as well. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and it was probably mostly on the strength of the visuals. That’s not to say the rest of it isn’t good — it is — just that it’s the look of the thing that really makes it stand out. And it’s a film that manages to be entertaining, if simple, for both children and adults (people who are fans of Celtic mythology will get more out of it than others, as will people who are knowledgeable of the history that is being used as a very rough inspiration for the story).