VOD Review: The Secret of Kells.
On St. Patrick’s Day we review this animated tale based on Celtic myth, from the Irish studio behind Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner.
This weekend we look at the first animated feature from Cartoon Saloon, an ambitious animation studio based in Ireland. Bursting onto the scene in the early 2000’s, this studio has already picked up three Academy Award nominations, the latest being for 2017’s The Breadwinner. The Secret of Kells is an animated fantasy film that imagines the creation of one of Ireland’s most treasured artifacts, The Book of Kells. Telling a speculative tale about the gorgeously illuminated manuscript, The Secret of Kells weaves in threads of Celtic mythology, medieval monastic living, and a coming-of-age adventure. The film is beautiful and populated with engaging characters, but it rushes through its second act and can’t quite come up with an ending as big as its ambitions.
The Secret of Kells (2009).
Brendan is a young monk living behind the stone-walls of a fortified abbey that his uncle, the Abbot, has made his life work. In fact, the Abbott is driven to distraction by the constant enlarging of the walls and has no time for Brendan’s fascination with the work of illuminating manuscripts. The walls serve to keep the dreaded Northmen out, but they also keep young Brendan in. One day an old monk named Aidan arrives with a half-completed tome, the fabled Book of Iona. He recognizes Brendan’s talent and ropes him into helping, which means Brendan must venture beyond the safety of the walls and into forests filled with fairies…and far darker spirits.
The Secret of Kells has a wonderful cast of characters. Brendan is precocious and self-serious in the way of a young boy still a stone’s throw from manhood yet surrounded by nothing but adults. His uncle the Abbot is ferociously played by Brendan Gleeson, who should win an award for “archetypical stern father” in nearly every role he plays. Christen Mooney brings Aisling, the shape-shifting young fairy, vividly to life. She’s everyone’s unimpressed and imperious little sister, constantly rolling her eyes at Brendan. The rest of the abbey is filled with eccentric and interesting characters. Interestingly, the abbey of Kells was big on diversity as we have monks from every nationality residing behind its walls. Some of the characters are just this side of thin stereotypes, but it feels like Cartoon Saloon’s heart is in the right place.
Everything Is Illuminated.
What sets The Secret of Kells apart is its gorgeous art style. The characters are fluidly animated and vivid, but the real star is the backgrounds. Every detail is lovingly crafted to resemble the Insular style of The Book of Kells and of motifs common to Irish folk art like the braided knot. The designs swirl and curve and are filled with minute detail and sumptuous color. Each background looks like a medieval drawing brought to life while still retaining its own aesthetic, and the studio uses ingenious techniques of perspective to make it looks like the characters are walking into and out of manuscript pages. The attention to detail and love of the subject shine through in every scene.
Beware the Northmen!
If this movie had come out in the 80’s, I would like to believe that it would have made our “Movies That Ruined My Childhood” list, in a good way. This film does not indulge in idle fantasies or trite stories. The Northmen are as serious as a heart attack, and they look and sound like demons from hell. Everyone in the story is rightly terrified of them, and they don’t suddenly roll over because the hero finds his purpose. Likewise, the spirit of death Crom Cruach is a delightfully horrible cross between living ink and a sea serpent. He’s rightfully dreadful, and it gives Brendan his finest moment when he figures out how to outsmart Cruach by trusting his talents.
Nothing in this film is handled with kid gloves, which speaks to the creators’ intention to present their material credibly and proudly. While it can be frightening and a tad of a downer in places, the story is richer for Director Tomm Moore’s dedication to presenting the material in a way that respects children.
“..And Then they Lived Happily Ever After, Except Not.”
The commitment to avoid typical modern fairy tale endings cuts both ways. In a Disney film, the attack by the Northmen which forces Brendan to grow up would lead to him returning triumphantly and driving them out of the land with his newfound ability. In Kells, it leads to Brendan spending a decade on the run while working on his manuscript, returning home long after the walls have crumbled and his uncle is a defeated shell of a man. Not exactly an uplifting series of events.
This ending could have been a bit more satisfying had it been given time, but the film flies through its second act without much of a narrative through-line. Whereas watching Brendan and Aisling adventure together and grow as characters could have sustained a full feature length film, grown up Brendan has very little to do and pretty much nobody to do it with after the Northmen sack his home. Gone are most of the colorful characters and fantastic elements. I know it would have been a sin against mature storytelling…but I wish young Brendan had just used his magic drawing power to send the Northmen to hell at the halfway point so we could just get back to him and Aisling having fun in the forest!
Flip the Manuscript.
The Secret of Kells is a fantastic achievement in artistry that just misses matching a satisfying story to its lovely visuals. The first half is engrossing and engaging, a magical tour through medieval life and Celtic mythology filled with great characters. It has a strong narrative arc that could have been expanded upon to make a more traditional animated movie. Kells opts to adhere to a less whimsical and more bitter-sweet second act that lacks much of the charm of the early parts. It’s a bit as if Disney had decided to shorten the fun parts of The Sword in the Stone in order to spend time on what a tragic drag King Arthur’s life was at the end. It would have been truer to history…but a heck of lot less fun.