The Irish/Belgian production The Secret of Kells is the surprise feature animated Oscar nominee of 2009, and as a result it is receiving far more attention than it otherwise would have. In an animated film world now dominated by CG features such a movement can only be for the best.
Reminding me of children’s storybooks, only more intricately drawn, The Secret of Kells lives exclusively in a 2D world of primarily hand drawn animation, only occasionally accompanied by CG elements. At only 75 minutes in length it’s more of a short story for children aged 5-10-years-old although the film itself does have some scary moments that may actually frighten children in that age range.
Directed by Tomm Moore and co-directed by Nora Twomey, The Secret of Kells tells a fantastical tale of Irish legend and mythology all surrounding the story of the very real Book of Kells, an 8th century book made up of the four Gospels of the New Testament. What makes it unique is the decorated fashion of which it was written, a process called illumination that fills the pages with decorations and beautifully drawn illustrations. As such, the decision to stick to primarily hand drawn animation for this film seems only fitting.
The story follows young Brendan living in the Abbey of Kells as the threat of the intruding Vikings from the North looms large. Abbot Cellach (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) is insistent his people finish the wall surrounding the Abbey to protect them from the angry horde, but the likelihood it will withstand the battle is slim; a truth that is all but verified when the celebrated illuminator Brother Aidan arrives unexpectedly after his island fell to the barbarians.
With him, Aidan carries that which they treasure most, the unfinished manuscript of the then referred to Book of Iona. With the help of Brendan, Aidan sets out to finish the book in hope it will bring light into the darkness and save them from the evil pounding at their gates.
As noted in a director’s statement for press, the themes of the story are targeted at all ages, but the film itself is most certainly aimed at a much younger audience. Additionally, what is likely to catch American audiences off guard is the lack of comedic punch lines, where an opening goose chase is about as funny as the story ever gets. Instead you get a softly told piece of alternative art — alternative because it’s like nothing you’ve seen in recent years on the big screen — dealing with friendship, redemption and forgiveness. The Secret of Kells can sit on the shelf next to Fantastic Mr. Fox and A Town Called Panic as a trio of animated entries from 2009 that bucked the system and all three succeed.
This is a film that’s easy to praise, primarily for the art of the feature. Two scenes that specifically stick out are a jailbreak sequence accompanied by the film’s only song as well as a quietly touching moment on the beach as the waves take with them a set of footprints as time moves forward and a friend is left behind.
However, the story never really wins me over as it’s a bit too juvenile for my taste, which isn’t a knock, it’s just to say there is an age group that will get much more out of this than I did. And hopefully, with the Oscar nomination, parents will be open to it whereas they otherwise would have likely never known The Secret of Kells existed.