Sometimes you find something that you really didn’t expect. Such was the case with The Secret of Kells for me. I’ve been trying to knock out animated films pretty regularly, since that’s an area where I have regularly been lax on this blog, and it just happened that this film is currently streaming. I expected pretty much standard animated fare. What I got instead was the sort of eye-opening film experience I had watching The Adventures of Prince Achmed. This is not a film that you watch for the story, although the story is very good. This is a film to experience for the gorgeous artwork.
It doesn’t look like this at first. In fact, the animation looks initially rather rudimentary and old, not at all like the three-dimensional work of modern animation. It’s disconcerting at first, and then the reality dawns: the animation is specifically designed to look like an ancient illuminated manuscript. Original story author and co-director Tomm Moore said that after seeing the culturally-inspired artwork of Mulan, he wanted to do something similar with Irish heritage and art. The result is a film that is uniquely gorgeous. To do this, he used a fictionalized account of a fictional version of the Book of Kells, and illuminated manuscript of the four gospels, something considered one of Ireland’s greatest cultural relics.
The story itself is good, but nothing spectacular. In the Abbey of Kells, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) is hard at work surrounding the place with a giant wall to repel the Viking invaders. Meanwhile, several of his brother monks chafe at no longer being able to work in the Scriptorium where manuscripts are illuminated. These men talk of the great Aidan of Iona, an illuminator of legendary skill. These tales work their magic on the young Brendan (Evan McGuire), Cellach’s nephew and person destined to one day take over the abbey.
Eventually, Aidan (Mick Lally) turns up at Kells, having left Iona when the Vikings attacked. He has brought the celebrated Book of Iona with him, but Cellach will not allow the other monks or Brendan to work on it. Brendan is fascinated with Aidan, though, and Aidan takes the boy under his wing and continues to train him in the art of illumination. He sends the boy out into the forest for a specific type of nut to make ink. Brendan goes and is attacked by wolves, but is rescued by a faerie named Aisling (Christen Mooney). The two become friends and Aisling helps Brendan find what he is looking for and return safely.
During his time in the forest, Brendan discovers a dark cave which Aisling tells him is the home of Crom Cruach, an ancient pagan deity. Later, Aidan tells him that he (Aidan) can no longer work on the Book of Iona because of his eyesight and trembling hands—Brendan must take over the work, but this requires a magnifying lens that is actually one of Crom Cruach’s eyes. And while Brendan considers this, the Vikings begin approaching Kells on their rampage and quest for gold.
It’s an interesting story, naturally filled with a sense of Celtic mythology, but beyond the specifics of the story itself, this isn’t extremely different from the typical fantasy story of many a family movie designed to entertain kids. The selling point here isn’t specifically the story, though, but the artwork. Sadly, the artwork probably works against The Secret of Kells as much as it makes the film worth watching. It looks at first glance very rudimentary, which will be off-putting to anyone who expects the three-dimensional style of animation that has become much more prevalent, which is probably why the film tanked hard at the box office. Anyone who is far more used to the look and feel of Pixar or Dreamworks films may well see this and decide that it doesn’t hold up.
That theoretical person would be wrong, though. The art here is absolutely gorgeous, in significant part because of the vast amount of intricate detail in every frame. It is initially disconcerting to see the characters in a profile view and see the background as if from directly above. Get used to it, because everything else is worth seeing here.
For many a film viewer, The Secret of Kells will be a visual disappointment and nothing too special in terms of the story. For those who want to experience a new visual look, this is a film that will pay enormous dividends. If you were impressed by the visuals of The Adventures of Prince Achmed, you’ve got the right mindset to appreciate this one. It’s worth your time, since it’s not much longer than an hour. Give it a shot.
Why to watch The Secret of Kells: Gorgeous and unique (for today) animation.
Why not to watch: It’s too short.