The Secret of Kells
Film review by: Witney Seibold
I, like you, hadn’t heard a word about Tomm Moore’s animated fable “The Secret of Kells” until it was bafflingly nominated for the 2009 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. I had to look up information in the internet to learn that it was an Irish film about medieval monks, and their struggle to illuminate manuscripts before the encroaching Viking hoards ransacked their town in search of gold. Luckily, the nomination saw this largely unknown film distributed in America, and we Yanks are treated to one of the most beautiful and enchanting animated films produced in quite some time.
In the medieval town of Kells, Abbot Cellach (Bredan Gleeson) is building a wall around his town to protect it from the inevitable invaders. He is strict and insistent, and will not allow his young nephew Brendan (Evan Mcguire) to ever explore the woods immediately outside the wall. When an eccentric old manuscript illuminator named Aiden (Mick Lally) sparks his imagination, young Brendan decides to venture into the woods anyway to find the berries needed for ink. In the woods, the young Brendan meets a little girl named Aisling (Christen Moony), who behaves like any little girl, but who is clearly a magical wood sprite of some kind. Brendan takes this information in stride. Aisling protects Brendan from wolves and other horrible beasties in the woods, and aids him in his efforts to complete the manuscript in question.
How wonderfully, refreshingly small, this story. Medieval monks treated with a disarming simplicity. A hero who is not a fighter or a warrior, but an apprentice illuminator. A story about magic that doesn’t exploit the violent aspects of spell-casting. A film that occurs in a specific time and place. And an all-important object that is not a weapon or a bauble, but a copy of the New Testament.
And how gorgeous! The strongly simple character animation is offset by a mythic, painterly set design that eschews perspective, and enhances beauty. There are extended sequences of mere abstract dreaminess that serve no story function, but greatly enhance the film’s mood of quaint, childish wonder. That’s what’s been missing from a lot of animated films these days: wonder. The film’s climactic supernatural battle with some kind of serpent is equal parts exciting and surreal; one can hardly tell if what we’re seeing is literal or figurative.
The film’s story kind of winds out near the end, heaping a huge amount of happenstance in a small period of time, leaving you with a narrative whimper more than a visual bang. But until then, the film is – to reuse that overused critic word – enchanting.