The Secret of Kells

The Secret of Kells

When you look into the woods, you never know what might be looking back at you.

(Gkids.com) Starring the voices of Brendan Gleeson, Evan Maguire, Chisten Mooney, Paul Young, Liam Hourican, Mick Lally, Michael McGrath, Paul Tyack. Directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey

Sometimes we get wrapped up in the mundane so much so that we lose track of things that are less tangible but more important. That can happen more easily in times of stress.

At the Abbey of Kells in Ireland, times are certainly troubled. The Emerald Isle is under frequent attack from the vicious and cruel Vikings of the North, who come seeking gold and leave destruction and misery in their wake. The Abbott (Gleeson), a stern man, is constructing titanic walls around the Abbey to protect it and the village surrounding it. At the center is a tall tower, the top of which is the residence of the Abbott. From his window he can see anything – and anyone – coming to attack.

His nephew Brendan (Maguire) is a bit of a dreamer, longing to be one of the illuminators who draw the beautiful manuscripts the order is known for. However, the Abbott is more concerned with getting the wall built and often uses the illuminators – particularly Brendan, who has a tendency towards daydreaming – to help with the heavy labor.

That all changes when Brother Aidan (Lally) arrives, his cat in tow. Aidan is the greatest illuminator of the age and he brings with him the legendary Book of Iona, a tome that he has been illuminating most of his life, one which was started by a Saint no less. Brendan is struck by hero-worship, particularly when he sees the first few pages of the Book.

Aidan sends him into the woods surrounding the fortress for a particular berry that makes a delightfully green ink (and tends to explode in a noxious cloud of smoke for some reason) and meets Aisling (Mooney), a wild girl of the forest with flowing white hair who may not be exactly what she appears to be. Although at first suspicious of one another, she agrees to help Brendan on the condition that he never return to “her” forest. Brendan agrees and they strike up a fast friendship.

The rest of the plot is concerned about the conflict between Brendan’s idealism and the Abbot’s pragmatism, between Brendan’s independence and the Abbot’s authority. Yes, the inevitable invasion of the Vikings occurs and there are ramifications of it. There is also a heaping dosage of Irish mysticism. And then there is the Book, which will eventually become better known as the Book of Kells.

One of the things that disturb me about animated features is the need to talk down to juvenile audiences. If there’s something that Up teaches us is that you can respect the intelligence and wisdom of kids when it comes to an animated movies just as much as you can the adults. There’s simply no need to dumb it down, and yet this feature, made by some of the animators who worked on The Triplets of Belleville (a very adult animated feature) utilizes a gaggle of international monks (one Italian, one Caribbean, one Russian I think and so on) who serve no other purpose than for kids to laugh at ‘em.

Personally I could have done without the comic relief. What works here is the beautiful hand-drawn animation. The filmmakers wisely decided to create the look of an illuminated manuscript, so the scenes are awash in intricate detail. This is certainly two dimensional and a bit of a throwback, but it’s obvious a great deal of love and care went into the animation. It makes for a very stylized look, but it is so detailed that it bears multiple viewings nicely. You will be transported, as I was, by the intricately drawn geometric shapes with the delicate scrollwork and bright colors.

The Secret of Kells received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature this past February, which was a bit of a surprise to many moviegoers who hadn’t heard of this movie. It beat out better-known releases such as Monsters vs. Aliens for the nomination. Those who are fortunate enough to find this playing in their town and give it a shot will see precisely why it was so honored; this is one of the most unique and beautiful-looking animated features I’ve ever seen.

REASONS TO GO: The beautifully drawn backgrounds resemble an illuminated manuscript come to life. The animation is inventive.

REASONS TO STAY: Like too many animated features, it dumbs itself down for younger audiences needlessly. Voice actors for Brendan and Aisling fall in and out of Irish accent.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A co-production of Belgium, France and Ireland.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely, this deserves to be seen in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW:  Mid August Lunch

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