In the Abbey of Kells, the Abbot Cellech works hard on finishing a wall that surrounds the Abbey as words from many people are spoken of the Vikings travelling and attacking villages, killing many people and destroying homes. He insists on his nephew, Brendan, to follow in his footsteps to make sure Kells is protected. Brendan on the other hand doesn’t want to go down this path, being an apprentice monk at the monastery’s scriptorium; he has an interest in illustrations. This young boy’s life is changed when he meets a legendary illuminator known as Adrian of Iona, who arrives in Kells after the Vikings attacked his monastery and is said to be working on a book so great, it’s said to turn darkness into light, called the Book of Iona. Adrian reveals to young Brendan that while the book is nearly finished, he is too old and frail to complete it, asking Brendan to finish the book for him, seeing potential and imagination in the boy’s young mind. Along the way, Brendan travels into the forest and finds the spirit in the forest known as Aisling, who despite being protective, seeing humans as creatures who harm her forest; she befriends Brendan and helps him on his task. However, the Vikings are heading nearer as each moment passes, so it’s up to Brendan and Aiden to make sure to protect what will become Ireland’s most important treasures in history, the Book of Iona, the Book of Kells.
This film was the directorial feature debut of Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, who both studied animation in Dublin and later founded animation studio Cartoon Saloon in 1998. In the company they worked well, but didn’t garner multimedia attention until they created a popular animated TV series known as “Skunk Fu!” The Secret of a Kells originally started as an on-and-off project beginning as early as the founding of Cartoon Saloon, but official production began sometime between 2003 and 2004, with French studios Les Armateurs and France 2 Cinema, and Belgian studio Vivi Films co-producing. Many changes happened to the story and the design, with the full production history available on the blog called “The Blog of Kells”. The film was completed and released nationwide in France, Belgium and Ireland in 2009, and had a limited theatrical run in America between March and July of 2010. The film was nominated Best Animated Feature at the 82nd Academy Awards, as well as the 37th Annie Award and has won multiple film festival awards such as the Annecy International Film Festival.
The animation is stunning, but what excels in this film is its cinematography. Almost every scene is designed to fit the scenario and the environment and blends well with the scenes before and after, using creative angles and colours to really captivate the audience. I have never seen an animated film before or since that is as visually creative in its design, and I said Paprika had the best animation I’ve ever seen! The character designs, however, did initially put me off for a while, the thick outlines, blocky body areas and exaggerated range of size proportions all make me feel like I’m watching some children’s cartoon, something that wasn’t surprising when I found out what Cartoon Saloon did previously, so early on it was difficult to take the film seriously. However I was easily able to grow onto the designs as the effects and the environment grabbed my attention.
The music is great and really fitting. For a film entirely set in a historical Ireland, the soundtrack has a wide variety of styles ranging from Celtic to Orchestra, and even Choir, yet still retains a feel of Irish culture and expresses both the emotion and environment of the scenes. There is even a vocal score sung by Aisling’s voice actor Christen Mooney, which sounds very soothing while mystifying at the same time.
The film’s cast consist of a range of actors, most of which aren’t well known outside of Ireland. The two exceptions is Brendan Gleeson as Abbott Cellach, who shows a very serious attitude while maintaining a respectful and calming tone, and the late Mick Lally as Brother Aiden, who is wise in his words though entertaining to listen to, you can tell he had fun performing this role. The other actors including Christen Mooney as Aisling and Even McGuire as Brendan are good to listen too, none of them are bad or annoying to complain about.
If the film’s title or my plot summary didn’t give it away, this film is based on the Illustrated Gospel Book known as the Book of Kells, which is regarded as the greatest national treasure of Ireland. While this story is more of a fantasy film than a historical account, it’s loosely based on the theories surrounding the origins of the famous book. The film expresses the idea of the importance of art and how greed for wealth and power, like from the Vikings, can destroy art, but I don’t think it is expressed as much as the story surrounding the people in Kells. Aisling isn’t really involved with the film, appearing in a few short, though important, and scenes and then she disappears from the film for a while, which is a shame because she’s an interesting character and I would’ve liked to have learned more about her. Despite that I did enjoy seeing the story from beginning to end, I just wished there was a little more.
This film really shows the lengths 2D Animation can go to in this day and age, if this isn’t the peak of hand-drawn animation, I don’t know what is. While its weakest point is its story and with the exception of Mick Lally’s fun performance, the cast is just listenable, what Moore and Twomey have created should be seen to witness the great artistic skills this film puts forward.
The Secret of Kells is available from Buena Vista, Optimum and GKIDS. Tomm Moore is currently working on his second feature film titled “Song of the Sea” which I hope is just as brilliantly animated as this film is. Original Book of Kells can be found on display at the Trinity College Library in Dublin, and for anyone on Studycove I highly recommend someone writing a study topic on the book.