Title: The Secret of Kells (2010) IMDb
Director: Tomm Moore (yes, two M’s)
Voice Actors: Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally
Score Composer: Bruno Coulais
Length: 75 minutes
Rating (US): No MPAA rating; suitable for older children, but beware of a few very intense, scary sequences, including an implied slaughter of village folk
Spoiler-free Synopsis: In the Irish monastic community at Kells, young Brendan dreams of becoming a master illuminator, but is frustrated by his Abbot’s obsession with fortifying against the Vikings over book-keeping. Brendan’s hopes are raised when a kooky old monk (and master illuminator!) arrives in Kells with a beautiful and unfinished Bible. In order to help with the book and learn illumination, Brendan must venture outside the walls of Kells, where he meets Aisling, the Fair Folk spirit of the forest. Unfortunately, the Vikings aren’t far behind…
Reason for Watching: It was this movie’s Oscar nominations that brought it to my attention, and I’m glad it did, because pretty much everything about it is right down my alley: the Middle Ages, Ireland, a fairy story, elves/fae, Christianity, striking 2D animation, Celtic music…
Movie Re-watchability: High. In addition to an enthralling, thoughtful story, the artwork itself is beautifully layered and complex, worthy of many close viewings.
Director Re-watchability: This is Tomm Moore’s only completed film that he has directed, so far, and I’m interested in his future work. He has a good grasp of how to match a movie’s visual style with the content of its story, and also knows the value of careful pacing, moments of silence, and simply taking one’s time to do things right.
Recommendation: Oh aye. This is a more intelligent and bold movie than we’re used to seeing in the children’s genre, as it has plenty for adults to think about. In fact, I’d wager to say that it’s really an adult movie that can happily be enjoyed by kids as well. Also, it knows how not to break its own magic. There are no pop-culture references to be found, no hipster catchphrases, no easy resolutions. Most modern kids’ movies aspire merely to be a drug to keep the kids quiet for an hour and a half—this one aspires to give them poetry and beauty, and trusts that it will do them good.
[I’ve been very careful to avoid SPOILERS in the review, but do talk about some of the plot.]
Aisling: I’ve lived through many ages. I’ve seen suffering in the darkness. Yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the book. The book that turned darkness into light.
The first thing you notice about The Secret of Kells is its visual style, which imitates the flat planes, geometric symbols, and striking colors found in medieval and Celtic art. The effect is lovely, and unlike any other animated film I know of (although it reminds me somewhat of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, which took medieval stained-glass windows for inspiration). Inside Kells, the shapes are formed of hard lines and points, often in the staircases, scaffolding, tables, and chairs. The effect is orderly, but sometimes the spatial edges of, say, a room seem to just roll away, and we’re left with a slightly surreal image of the picture’s main object almost hanging in space, as seen in the picture below with the Abbott looking out the tower window. Outside Kells, in Aisling’s forest, Celtic swirls and spirals become more prominent, shifting and swaying with the wind like living things. Here, the sound design gives a tangible reality to the stylized images. Then, when the Vikings arrive, with their fire and metal and violence, everything changes: the colors bleed into stark black and red, perspective suddenly makes the world large and menacing, and the invaders lack detail, appearing as menacing, unthinking monsters. It’s not an accurate depiction of Viking culture, to be sure, but it does reflect the medieval terror of Viking ruthlessness.
You’ll like Brendan, the ginger-headed boy who desperately wants to illustrate books, but tries to respect the wishes of his uncle, the Abbott Cellach (tries, at least, until Brother Aidan gives him an “excuse” for disobeying). Brendan has never left the walls of Kells as long as he can remember. His parents died to the Vikings, and his uncle has taken care of him ever since. He’s a curious and creative boy, though prone to absent-mindedness. Living in safety and peace, he gives nary a thought to the reports of Vikings raids along the coast and islands. His uncle, the Abbott, can think of nothing else. When he should be guiding the spiritual welfare of his monks and the other people living in the settlement of Kells, he instead can only think of designing and building larger and stronger fortifications.
The status quo is upset by the arrival of Brother Aidan* from Iona, fleeing the Vikings. Aidan is the most celebrated illuminator of the times, and he brings with him the unfinished Book of Iona—later to become the Book of Kells, the most complete and beautiful example of medieval illumination and Celtic art we have today. A sprightly, roguish, and rather unorthodox man, Aidan immediately sees that Brendan has immense artistic talent and enlists his aid to finish the Book, but secretly so that the Abbott won’t find out.
As part of their surreptitious work, Aidan sends Brendan into the surrounding Irish forest to collect the special berries for their colored inks. It’s there that Brendan meets Aisling, a white shape-changing fairy girl who claims to be the spirit of the forest. She’s the movie’s most charismatic and entertaining character (easily seen in the movie’s marketing, which disproportionately emphasizes her), and it’s easy to see why. Sometimes a wolf, sometimes a girl, sometimes a flying ghost, she is otherworldly, but possesses a very minxish sense of humor and speaks her mind clearly. When Brendan tries in vain to convince her that he knows how to climb trees, but that the ones he is used to are “smaller,” she laughs and says, “Yeah…like bushes!” She also takes a liking to Brother Aidan’s white cat, Pangur Bán, and in one beautiful instance transforms him into a ghostly creature in order to help Brendan.
The children—for though Aisling is likely very, very old, her personality and appearance are of a young girl—develop a charming rapport, and somehow their teasing and silliness escapes the pit of “hipness” and irreverence that most mainstream fairy tales keep falling into these days, that would rob it of timelessness. Perhaps this is because, for all their childlike qualities, they are not truly irreverent regarding important things. The Abbott frustrates and confuses Brendan, but Brendan still loves and respects him. Aisling doesn’t understand the Christian love for books, but she respects Brendan’s desires even if she doesn’t fully understand them. And the magic itself is taken very seriously.
Perhaps you remember that essay of C.S. Lewis’ where he said that, in fairy stories, you may have humor, but the magic itself must never be laughed at? The Secret of Kells follows that rule. Even the apparently carefree Aisling is terrified of the cave of the pagan god Crom. This ancient Irish deity—or demon impersonating a deity, from the Christian perspective—promotes death and darkness, and is enemy even to Fair Folk. Brendan’s encounter with Crom is one of this laid-back movie’s more tense and interesting moments, as black superstition and fear is challenged by sacred art and creative inspiration in a stunning and surreal battle.
Most of the tension derives from two sources: the Abbott’s increasing anger at Brendan’s disobedience in serving Aidan, and the inevitable approach of the Vikings. While the latter is more terrifying, the former is more interesting. The Abbott is not a villain, but he does fail to see what is truly important. Still, Brendan is wrong to disobey him, and Brother Aidan is wrong to encourage his disobedience, even if for good intentions.
The movie does have a happy ending, though not a traditional one. In a surprising move by the filmmakers, the last ten minutes or so take us through some fifteen or twenty years, quietly observing how these characters grow and mature until they are ready to be reconciled. It was heartwarming and thought-provoking to see how reconciliation and forgiveness were gradually obtained between these three people.
If I have any critique, it is that the story doesn’t actually delve that much into the process and results of illumination. There is talk of creativity, and the amazing brilliance that a master artist can bring to the text he illustrates, and we see Brendan try his hand at it a little bit, here, and there. The Book of Kells (also called the Book of Iona) is frequently praised for its beauty, but rarely shown. In the end, this is okay, because the movie is focused more on the personal journey of Brendan, but the themes of creativity and inspiration would have been stronger had the movie investigated the Book and the principles by which the art was made.
I have mentioned Christianity a few times in this review. To be honest, the movie never explicitly discusses religion or faith, nor does it ever identify the Book of Kells as the Bible (although one can easily find online that it is such). I wish the movie had, but I doubt the filmmakers are Christians, and they wanted to appeal to a wide audience. Still, I think Lewis, Tolkien, and MacDonald would have liked this story a lot. The Bible is, indeed, the book that turns darkness into light!
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
– John 1:5
*Fun note: Aidan is voiced by Mick Lally, a popular Irish actor, who also played Grandpa Hugh in The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), one of my favorite film fairy stories.
Credits: Screencaps from Screened.com