The Secret of Kells

When people look back at the 00’s in terms of film, they probably won’t find a shortage of interesting patterns and trends to focus on, but one undeniable and, to my mind, refreshing trend is the reemergence of animation as a substantial, cinematic art form. Perhaps the name that immediately springs to mind when one thinks of 20th Century animation is Pixar and then, to a lesser extent, Dreamworks. But these two US studios are hardly alone, and anyone would be remiss not Japan’s Studio Ghibli and, especially, Hayao Miyazaki whom, although they’ve been producing masterpieces since the 80s, gained worldwide recognition with the release of Princess Mononoke and, especially, Spirited Away. But even outside of those two giants, the millennium has also seen invaluable contributions from France (Persepolis) and Israel (Waltz with Bashir). It’s only fitting, then, that Ireland should submit their contribution to the new animated landscape as well, and it’s hard to imagine a more extraordinary contribution than Secret of Kells.

The film is set in the ninth century in the town of Kells, in County Meath in Ireland. In the town, the Abbey of Kells is a monastery where a group of multi-cultural monks are working on the legendary Book of Kells, while the Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) is busy building a massive wall to prevent the intrusion of the marauding Vikings who are looking for treasure. There, young Brendan (Evan McGuire) is the Abbot’s nephew who is constantly getting in trouble. When the legendary illuminator, Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), arrives from the Scottish island of Iona, Brendan becomes obsessed with helping him finish his book, which results in him adventuring out past the town walls, into the forest where his stern uncle has forbid him to go. In the forest, along with Aidan’s cat, Pangur Bán, he encounters the faerie/wolf sprit of the forest, Aisling (Christen Mooney).

For those who don’t know the true story, The Book of Kells is widely considered the pinnacle of Insular Illumination, comprised of 340 folios of mind-bogglingly intricate illuminations of the Four Gospels of the New Testament in Latin. It’s equally considered one of Ireland’s greatest treasure, and is on constant display in Dublin. The book was, indeed, created by Celtic monks circa 800, and much of its origins and artistry remains a mystery. One of the mysteries was how the monks could have drawn such incredibly labyrinthine designs without the help of some kind of magnifying glass. The film’s answer was to take what is known, and fill in much of the blanks with Irish lore, including the existence of Krom Cruach, a Pagan deity of pre-Christian Ireland that was legendarily defeated by St. Patrick, who was said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland.

But it should be said that the film doesn’t require one to know any of this to enjoy it. In fact, most of the film takes on the classic archetypal form of the monomyth or hero’s journey, using Brendan as the classic young, aspiring hero (think Luke Skywalker) who is called on to complete extraordinary tasks, and whom enters an extraordinary new world when he begins on his way. In Kells, that mythical other realm is embodied in the forest itself, and especially the figure of Aisling who, despite her minimal amount of screen-time, steals the show with her confident, bratty, but mystical persona. Aisling could be said to be a cinematic cousin to Miyazaki’s Mononoke, though in that film, the main girl was a feral child raised by wolf-spirits, instead of a spirit herself.

Kells actually has a great deal in common with Miyazaki, especially in its approach with translating culturally unique myths, histories, fantasies, etc. into a story that can appeal to all audiences on a universal level. While Miyazaki tends to pose the magic and spirituality of organic nature against the malevolent greed of capitalistic modernity, Kells focuses on a slightly different conflict while retaining the mystical outlook on nature itself. But it must be said that the film’s best moments take place between Brendan and Aisling in the forest, especially because these sections free up the animators’ and creators’ imaginations to freely manipulate time, images, space, perception, colors, and shapes. Even the relatively conflict-free event of Aisling and Brendan climbing a tree takes on a monumental quality to it because of the images and animation.

While the imaginative creativity is most obvious in such sections, it truly pervades the entire film, to both obvious and lesser degrees. I may go as far as to say that Moore and company have crafted an entire visual language out of the basics of imagery, namely shapes, colors, space, and perspective. In terms of shapes, concentric circles comprise the comfortable, open, joyous places and people, while sharp angles begin invading the screen when fears, enemies, death, and suffering occur. Likewise, the rich colors of the magical forest contrasts with the more desaturated, low-contrast colors in the town of Kells, which further contrasts with high-contrast reds, whites, and blacks of the nightmarish Vikings. Moore and company get a tremendous amount of mileage out of motifs like eyes, and traditional Celtic symbols which spring up all over the film, including even in snowflakes. Meanwhile, the flattened perspective mimics the imagery of Renaissance visual arts, while the mixture of hand-drawn, computer, and flash animation perfectly integrates together, and yet allows each to set different tones depending on what they’re used to depict.

But if the film is a masterpiece of visual of storytelling, it’s less a masterpiece of narrative and character storytelling. This isn’t to say that the characters or story are bad, per say, but they are certainly less riveting than the visual language and aesthetic style. In a certain respect, the film seems to rely a bit too much on archetypes, whether it’s the stern-but-loving-uncle, the more liberal, wise, elder, the magical, mysterious girl, or the naïve, wide-eyed, brave young hero. None of the characters are given much three-dimensionality, and while the voice acting is adequate, it’s not stellar enough to really humanize the characters to the degree they need. In this respect, Kells is significantly inferior to the films of Pixar and Miyazaki. Yet, when the visual experience is this gloriously conceived and executed, I find it nit-picking to complain too much. If I want Pixar or Miyazaki, I have them available, but neither come close to duplicating the aesthetic perfection of Kells, and in such instances I am willing to sacrifice character and story to get it.

Whatever one’s level of knowledge about the history of Ireland and the Vikings, the Book of Kells, the abbey or illuminators, or Irish lore, the true greatness of The Secret of Kells is that its magic and power lies in the transcendental language of images. Ross Stewart’s art direction, under the orchestrating hands of Tomm Moore and his co-director, Nora Twomey, has produced a masterpiece of visual design that brings the ornate magnificence of The Book of Kells to kaleidoscopic, vivid, imaginative life. To put it simply, The Secret of Kells is one of the glorious pieces of hand-drawn animated fiction and design in the history of the medium. It may lack the pristine sense of character and narrative of Pixar’s best, and it might not bridge the gap between unique cultural myth and universal elements like Miyazaki, but it is equal to both of those giants in its ability to fully transport the viewer to another time and place while being amongst the most sumptuous visual feasts in the history of cinema.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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