The movie is in the tradition of the great Hayao Miyazaki – visionary and engrossing, without overstating the need to impress with technological advancements. The story would be enough to sell it. Told from the perspective of a young monk named Brendan, an Irish abbey grows ever-so-fearful of the impending danger of Vikings, and is in the process of constructing a wall around their monastery that would (hopefully) keep invaders out. The undertaking is particularly important to Cellach the abbot, whose stone face and humorless demeanor necessitates certain urgency in the project. Brendan, young and inquisitive, doesn’t necessarily see it that way, and when the abbey acquires a visitor in the worldly Brother Aidan, his lessons are enriched by a new perspective.
Aidan, the keeper of an important tome known as the “Book of Iona,” has fled the barbaric raids of his homeland and sees his possession as “a beacon in the dark days of the Northman,” and regales Brendan with stories of how the words and images on its pages are so powerful that they blind nonbelievers upon sight. The young lad is stirred greatly by these tales and is tasked to assist in its evolution: first by acquiring berries from the forest to use for ink, and later by taking up a feather pin and creating his own images for those sacred pages. The abbot, needless to say, does not approve of his young nephew being persuaded by the “folly” of books and their illusions in a time of cultural unrest.
Much like Tarsem Singh’s “The Fallen” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the crux of the narrative lies in two intersecting conflicts, each displayed through perspectives separated by age and wisdom. Aidan and the abbot’s grim conversations evoke the seriousness of the impending arrival of the Vikings, and Brendan’s innocent nature sends him on adventures that are fantastic and imaginative. While acquiring berries for ink in the nearby forest, the youngest monk of the abbey crosses the path of a woodland sprite named Aisling, whose whimsical nature is at first alarming to the sheltered boy until she exposes him to new and exciting ways of thinking. One such endeavor takes him to the cave of a dark spirit, whose eye is a crystal that may be of use to Brother Aidan in his efforts to finish the book’s remaining pages. Later still, when the Vikings do in fact arrive and force many to flee, the forest acts out in defense of its gentle monks, and the invaders are pushed back by its underlying ferocity and shadows. The statements regarding nature versus industry are abundant here – just as they are in most fantasies – but seldom are they built to this level of dexterity.
The ambitious nature of “The Secret of Kells” is best exemplified by the animation, which is flat and primitive, but done in a style so distinct that it feels less like a progression of animation cells and more like murals in motion. Fragments of the foreground and background collide in unison during chases and battles. The Vikings are seen as shadows scurrying across a canvas of harsh lights. The forest is conveyed with eccentric symmetry, and the trees reach so high and proud they seem to create archways. Characters are defined by circular edges rather than sharp or tapered ones, and they move in conjunction with surroundings that seemingly bend to their will.
Even more remarkable still, the animators don’t even view their material through typical angles or editing, and convey much of the narrative through shots that are inspired by the technical skill of famous live action filmmakers. Consider an audacious sequence in which Brendan is delivering blueprints to the abbot, and the frame is seen as a series of three archways containing different shots of the same journey from different moments and angles. Brian DePalma, who perfected the split-screen style of editing, would find flattery in this indirect homage. Other marks of genius: a shot in which a character is seen from a high angle as if the camera is looking down on him while he scales a spiral staircase, and another sequence in which the young hero engages in battle with a serpent that is inexplicably innovative. 3D animation may indeed be an invitation into fully realized worlds and landscapes, but here is a movie that suggests we can also be nourished by the artistry that still permeates from the 2D technique.
Who will see this movie, though? And who will be won over by its distinctive flair? Alas, not the audiences who normally go see cartoons in a movie theater. The subject matter is laced with very adult tragedy, and its characters – even the light-hearted Aisling – are not easily identifiable for minds too young to understand the subtexts behind the flash and color. In an ongoing discussion that argues this genre can be just as thrilling to adults as children, however, “The Secret of Kells” embodies the positive implications of that debate. The animation exists not for animation’s sake, but for the purpose of artistry and panache. The characters express our fundamental human desires, their impulses reflecting our need to find adventure in the dust clouds of violent conflicts. And the story is at the heart of a universal ideal: the belief that words and images transcend the times and inspire hope in the people, even in the face of a cruel world that would rather wipe them from existence.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Animated/Fantasy (Ireland); 2009; Not Rated (contains frightening images of fantasy violence); Running Time: 75 Minutes
Evan McGuire: Brendan
Christen Mooney: Aisling
Brendan Gleeson: Abbot Cellach
Mick Lally: Aidan
Liam Hourican: Brother Tang / Leonardo
Paul Tylak: Brother AssouaProduced by Didier Brunner, James Flynn, Rahma Ghili, Tomm Moore, Ivan Rouvreure, Viviane Vanfleteren and Paul Young; Directed by Tom Moore and Nora Twomey; Written by Fabrice Ziolkowski; based on the story by Tom Moore