▲ All illustrations provided by the film, The Secret of Kells (2009)
Take a marvelous ride and experience some cinematic magic this summer as director Tomm Moore applies his dazzling hand-drawn animation style to an Irish inspired tale based on a piece of Celtic folklore. The Secret of Kells (2009) is about a young boy in a remote village under siege from Viking raids who goes on an adventure when an illuminator arrives with an ancient tome filled with secret wisdom and insights. The audience not only becomes mesmerized with its enthralling visuals, but also encounters mystical Irish traditional music.
Nearly every frame of The Secret of Kells contains decorative curls, twisted patterns and figures, distinguishing it clearly from other animated films. The landscapes, fortified walls, human characters, and strange creatures all come in different shapes and sizes. The decorative borders on the edge of the film complement the dramatic impact from the beginning to the final scene, illuminating the dark ages with a grain of hope.
Not surprisingly, this film was nominated for the Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards in 2010 due to its fascinating visuals. One vital element is that this film is based on the Book of Kells, a medieval manuscript about the four gospels of the Bible that is still considered an Irish national treasure. Just like the book itself, the film uses early Christian theology to gain access to a wider audience as it illuminates the text with its incredible and optimistic sentiment. It also fills the book with sacred magic and allows the audience to experience a whole new world.
The storyline is about an idealistic young boy named Brendan who lives in the Abbey of Kells, an outpost surrounded by heavily fortified walls. Due to the threat of Viking raids, his uncle and the monks are sequestered in the abbey and Brendan has never stepped outside its walls. One day, Brother Aidan comes to Kells with an unfinished sacred book of knowledge, which he refers to as "a beacon in these dark days.” Brendan is fascinated with the book and tries to help Brother Aidan complete it, as his hands are too old and unsteady. However, to create the book, Brendan needs to face his fears and undertake a dangerous quest to obtain both inkberries in the forest and the “Eye of Crom,” which is a crystal lens that magnifies images.
Typically, in animated films, the imagery and direction can be overshadowed by the characters or the plot. However, there are various scenes where the directors—Nora Twomey co-directed with Moore— captivates the viewers. To illustrate, Moore and Twomey mainly use extreme long shots to portray the vast landscape of the forest and express a variety of emotions by closely zooming in on a character’s face, sometimes even taking at a subjective view from his perspective.
The film divides the world into four distinct settings, each with its own intricate details as follows: the village, the Vikings, the forest, and the tomb of Crom Cruach, a pagan deity that resides in a mystical cave within the forest. The different settings all generate different emotions and sit in contrast with each other depending on what is shown on the screen. For instance, the scenes in the forest and within the walls evoke tranquility, while there is a feeling of suspense and nervousness in front of the cave, and the menacing Vikings bring out fear, terror, and dread.
Besides the enchanting illustrations, the musical score blends well with the film, reflecting traditional Irish folk music. For instance, when Brendan goes to the forest and sees Aisling, a fairy that possesses magical powers, the melody is filled with flutes, bagpipes, and other percussion instruments that resonate a peaceful ambiance. Furthermore, because the music is in accord with the film, not only does the symphony have a smooth, and airy tone but it also manages to deliver a delicately crafted tune encompassing echoes of dark, grim music.
However, despite its mesmerizing animation, the movie does not go into great detail about the book, despite highlighting its significance. Viewers are provided with little information about the book itself; they are merely told that it gives hope, but it is never fully described why or how this happens. Because of this, it may be hard for children to fully understand the worth of the book, which will probably appeal to older fans who are into fantasy and animation. In addition, Brendan’s jam-packed adventures are crowded with too much narrative for its short running time. Nevertheless, it may have been the directors’ intent to make it vague, as they manage to connect the animated narrative to a fascinating piece of history. Although stylistically very different from many other animated movies, The Secret of Kells is unlike anything viewers have seen. It uses vivid colors and sophisticated 2D sketches of the Book of Kells by connecting it with ancient history combined with modern animation techniques. Even though there are ambiguous scenes that may confuse members of the audience, the story itself is very interesting; just like the Eye of Crom, it illuminates viewers with shimmering phantasmagoria.
Release Date: February 11, 2009
Directors: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey
Cast: E van McGuire, Christen Mooney, Brendan Gleeson