The Secret of Kells

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
  The Secret of Kells
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

The barbarians are at the gates as the violent Northmen invade the Celtic lands and endanger the fortified enclave overseen by Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleason). The arrival of master illuminator Aidan (Mick Lally) will have a terrific impact on the Abbot’s nephew, acolyte Brendan (Evan McGuire), despite the invading Vikings in “The Secret of Kells.”

This is a from-left-field entry for the Best Animation Feature for this year’s Oscars and I have to hand it to the nominating committee for making a classy decision to include “The Secret of Kells” in the list of nominees. Young Brendan is fascinated by the unfinished illuminated manuscript brought to the abbey by Aidan and is thrilled when the visitor asks for his help in finding the seeds needed to make a special ink.

The Abbot, because of the coming danger of Nordic invaders, forbids Brendan to leave the safety of the abbey walls. The youngster goes against the rules and sneaks out into the forest to find the special seeds but a pack of hungry wolves surround him and draw nearer and nearer with dripping fangs. Suddenly, the wolves are send packing by the woodland fairy, Aisling. She helps him find the coveted seeds but bans him from returning to the forest, though this is not the last we will see from the magical nymph.

Back at the abbey, he gives Aidan the seeds and the master illuminator shows Brendan his secrets in making the special ink that will give life to the illumination ‘script. Aidan sees something special in the boy and gives him the unfinished Book of Kells, the work of angels, and assigns Brendan to complete it with his special skills and bring it to the people to begin the Renaissance. However, those damn Vikings are yet to come!

“The Secret of Kells” is a quasi history lesson that marks the end of the Dark Ages and the beginning of the rebirth of civilization. Directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey create a gorgeous little work that won the hearts and minds of the voting Academy members, pushing out of the running the likes of “9,” “Monsters vs. Aliens,” “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and the neglected but wonderful Australian anime, “Mary and Max” (my choice for the 5th Best Animation slot – check it out. You will be glad you did).

The CGI artwork is masterful and the whole of “The Secret of Kells” has the appearance of the illuminated manuscript that is at its center. The look has a retro feel but the clarity of the digital animation allows the lushness of the film to burst on the screen. This is not a crowd pleaser like the Oscar-winning “Up.” However, it is intelligent and artistic filmmaking and worth a look. I give it a B.

Brendan (voice of Evan McGuire) is a young monk inspired by the illustrators and their stories of the glorious Book of Iona, but his uncle, the Abbot Cellach (voice of Brendan Gleeson), once an illustrator himself, is now consumed with protecting his Abbey from the Vikings who have laid waste to everything in their path.  One day, Brother Aidan (voice of Mick Lally) of Iona arrives with his cat Pangur Ban, and Brendan is caught between obeying his uncle and learning the art of illustration from Aidan in the book that becomes "The Secret of Kells."

This surprise Oscar-nominated animation from first time feature directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey tells an interesting historical tale with animation that ranges from TV cartoon level to the magically complex and a lurching pace.  What sets "The Secret of Kells" apart is the artistic ingenuity of working Celtic design into everything from scaffolding to the Abbot's face.  With traditional Irish instruments making solo appearances until they converge in the film's latter half, "The Secret of Kells" is sure to become a St. Patrick's Day tradition that can be enjoyed by children (although some younger may be scared by the demonic portrayal of the Vikings) and adults alike.

The film begins without much distinction as Brendan and a pack of abbots chase a goose through the Abbey's village, but then we are surprised - the goose is being hunted not for dinner but for five of its quills to use as pens.  But the Abbot, whose face is a marvel of sword for nose with hilt as nostrils, Celtic scrolls for eyebrows and shape of a medieval armored helmet, arrives to redirect the monks' labors to the building of the fortress walls and asks nephew Brendan to fetch the plans.  Brendan arrives hours later, having been sucked into the story of St. Colmcille, who began the Book of Iona two hundred years prior.  (The monks' bickering over whether Colmcille possessed a third eye or a third arm is reminiscent of the arguing narrators in "Sita Sings the Blues.")

The Abbot's room is a marvel of design as the former scripture illustrator's walls are covered in his drawings, its floor an aerial view of his tower, its window perfectly Abbot shaped, as if he'd run through it all Looney Tunes.  Then Aidan arrives (his cat Pangur Ban's muzzle is a circle and a cross) with the storied Book and asks Brendan to fetch him the berries of an oak tree from which a dazzling green ink can be made.  Brendan tells the Ionian monk he is not allowed to leave the Abbey, yet he decides to sneak out.  He finds the forest a revelation until he is surrounded by a pack of menacing wolves, but they scatter at the approach of a white one.  She is actually Aisling (voice of Christen Mooney), a fairy who helps the young monk on his quest.

While the Abbot, who tells Brendan he shouldn't believe in imaginary things, and Aidan, who advises that there is nothing to stop him but his imagination, struggle over the young boy, the Vikings approach and when they arrive, heralded by a single cawing crow in a silent snow, hell almost literally breaks loose.  The Abbot, who barely survived the attack, lives many years regretting his treatment of Brendan until one day....

The Book of Kells, which has survived the loss of its cover, half of its pages and water damage, is considered the greatest antique illuminated manuscript in existence (it is on display at Trinity College in Dublin).  Many of its details are so fine, they can only be seen with a magnifying glass, a story element neatly worked into the film.  The final burst of animation lets illustrations and designs from the sacred book fly through the air, glowing with the mysterious inks that created them, and, if nothing else, the film inspires a desire to see the book.  Still the film seems to stop and start, great bursts of beauty in between more mundane stretches. Fortunately the film is inspiring awe far more than it is not.

Vocal talent is all fine, with young Christen Mooney giving Aisling an otherworldly yet childlike voice. The song sung by Aisling to aid Brendan by turning Pangur Ban into a spirit is an ethereal delight.

"The Secret of Kells" is a fine example of how to entertain while educating.  Fabrice Ziolkowski's screenplay is all based on historical fact, although the Columban monk St. Brendan was contemporary to Colmcille.

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