CAPSULE: THE SECRET OF KELLS (2009)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey

FEATURING: Voices of Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally

PLOT: In Ireland in the Dark Ages, Brendan chafes under the rule of his stern uncle, an

Still from The Secret of Kells (2009)

abbot obsessed with building a wall around the monastery to repel Viking invaders; the boy’s apprenticeship into the art of creating illuminated manuscripts gives him the courage to leave the safety of the village and enter the faerie-haunted forest that surrounds it.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s original, artistically superior and nearly dreamlike, but it lacks that defiant sense of “otherness” needed to carry it from the realm of the offbeat to the truly weird.

COMMENTS:  If Walt Disney hired a group of 9th century Irish monks to oversee the work of the animators who created Fantasia, the completed project might look something like The Secret of Kells.  (In fact, the animators weren’t Disney veterans, but some of the same folks who pulled off The Triplets of Belleville).  Both the story and the animation style of Secret were inspired by the historical Book of Kells, one of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts in the history of Christendom.  Just as in the movie, books like Kells kept the light of knowledge and civilization burning during the Dark Ages, and invading barbarian hordes intent on plunder did threaten to quench that flame. (The movie is impeccably researched and filled with sly little details: even the white cat Pangur Bán is a historical figure).  Brendan’s quest to preserve and complete the Book places his story in an epic context, and it raises interesting implications about the way pagan and Christian beliefs melded to form a common culture, but the real tale here is the mythological Hero’s Journey, as Joseph Campbell defined it: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”  Brendan, the novice, ventures from the walls of the monastery into the mystical forest, where he encounters the faerie spirit Aisling: he defeats the sleeping pagan god Crom Cruach, symbolically becomes a man, and returns to Kells as the conquering hero who completes the Book and keeps civilization alive.  (Curiously, Christianity is never explicitly mentioned in the script; presumably, the omission is an attempt to universalize the tale).  The simple and familiar structure is a brilliant choice to tell this story, because it allows you to settle in and let the amazing imagery float through your eye and into your mind.  The color scheme is jewel-like, like the eye-popping miracle inks the monks go to great lengths to acquire for the Book.  Like the illustrations on the margins of an illuminated manuscript, elaborate curlicue motifs and baroque Celtic knots appears everywhere in the film—look for them drifting about in fog, falling in snowflakes, or hidden in the foliage of the forest.  Sometimes the edges of the frame will be decorated with these figures, like the margins in the real Book of Kells: but here, they acquire another dimension, swirling and dancing about, sometimes invading the frame like spinning Celtic amoebae.  The human figures, in contrast, are abstract, stylized and geometric. Abbot Cellach’s stature in the community is revealed in his freakish height; the bodies of the wolves are assembled out of sharp toothy triangles; the Vikings are brute cinderblock shadows with horns.  The styles merge to create a unique, otherworldly visual experience that simultaneously recalls the artwork of medieval monks and classic storybooks. The synthesis is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.  It’s a picture-perfect, visionary universe in which to set a tale trumpeting art and imagination as the essence of civilization, the only power strong enough to defeat the forces of darkness and barbarism.

No one denies the films visual authority; the sole criticisms revolve around the supposition that it’s light on plot.  I’m not so sure: the movie encompasses the story of a young boy who becomes a man and an artist, and it has fox-spirits, ancient pagan gods, mystical forests, spells, historical allegories, a flawed authority figure, moral dilemmas, Viking assaults… really, all its missing is a wisecracking anthropomorphic sidekick and a chase scene.  And I don’t miss those.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“On the visual level, the film is on a higher plane… The climactic sequence in which the Vikings finally attack might scare small fry if it weren’t so surreally, almost mathematically beautiful.”–Ty Burr, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

9 thoughts on “CAPSULE: THE SECRET OF KELLS (2009)”

  1. One of the most impressive animations and one of the sweetest eye-candies. This is truly a must see. A great review, as always. :)

  2. Great review- you really captured the visual wonders of the film. The weirdest thing about this movie to me, though, was the group of monks from other continents who were drawn as racial stereotypes and seemed to have no place at a Catholic monastery in Ireland in the 800’s. I’ve never seen mention of them in discussions of the film, but their inclusion was so strange to me it really had me wondering why the writers chose to have them there, aside from simple comedic relief.

  3. 2 comments within an hour after posting: I guess more people have seen this one than I thought.

    Alex, I thought the multicultural monks were strange too. Tomm Moore addresses that oddity in an interview with Andrew O’Hehir from Salon.com. He says that in his research he learned that some of the inks and patterns used in the Book of Kells came from as far away as Afghanistan and Morocco, and he thought that was strange. I guess the monks were his way of representing that worldwide influence and making the Book represent civilization in general, rather than just an artifact specifically tied to Celtic Catholicism. You can read the interview here.

  4. I’m going to have to buy this as soon as possible. It’s so rare to see something that doesn’t seem somehow ‘recycled’ these days in the world of animation.

  5. We thought it was a nice reflection of how cosmopolitan Irish society has become today.

    From the article 366weirdmovies linked in his comment. So there’s no historical basis, it’s simply throwing a bone to modern politics.

  6. I really enjoyed this film. The stylized version of animation really worked for me, especially the visual cues it took from the real Book of Kells. I wish more people would work with in this style. The last time we saw it was “Samurai Jack,” which in my mind is still the best American action cartoon.

    The story really got to me. I’m a sucker for stories about the older generation trying to pass on knowledge to the younger generation. The regret that monk feels at having “failed” hits me like a sucker punch. Luckily, this film is forgiving.

    I also highly recommend the soundtrack by Bruno Coulais. It’s been getting heavy rotation on my playlist, especially the track “Aisling Song.”

    “You must go where I can not.”

  7. I know the history of the book, so I wasn’t out of the loop, however in the end it was a very dull plot. However the visuals– one of the most inspired works I have seen in a very, very long time.

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