Directed by Tomm Moore, with a co-directing credit assigned to Nora
Twomey, The Secret of Kells was a surprise Oscar nominee in the
Best Animated Feature category last year. While the movie will never be
mistaken for a popcorn-audience blockbuster, its deserving recognition
by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences does show a
heartening willingness to embrace and reward the different possibilities
of the medium.
The story is set in medieval times, and centers around young, orphaned Brendan (Evan McGuire), who lives in the Abbey of Kells, a remote Irish outpost. There, under the watchful eye of his uncle, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), he dutifully helps work to fortify the abbey walls. Joyless and stern, Cellach is obsessed against preparing for the impending attack of Viking marauders, who are later represented as faceless intruders with garbled voices. But grand adventure beckons for Brendan when a celebrated master illuminator, Aidan (Mick Lally), arrives from a foreign land carrying a legendary but unfinished book, The Book of Iona, brimming with amazing artistry as well as secret wisdom and powers.
To help complete the magical manuscript, Brendan breaches the abbey’s walls for the first time, heading into the forest to pick a batch of special inkberries for Aidan. There, he meets a mysterious shape-shifting fairy, Aisling (Christen Mooney), who saves him from wolves and also discloses painful secrets about her own family and childhood. When Aidan reveals that both his failing eyesight and the additional lack of a special, lost charm prevent him from completing his text, Brendan, with the barbarians closing in, gets a chance to showcase his own latent artistic vision. While he cannot completely save his village, Brendan and Aidan escape with the book, and eventually get a chance to strike a blow for the power of enlightenment.
The Secret of Kells is not first and foremost a conventional hero’s journey, or even a rigidly structured tale. (In fact, it takes a digressive bit of third act wandering to push it over the 75-minute mark.) The story here is a fable, and best thought of as a carriage through which to ravishingly realize a tangential moral lesson. And on this front, the movie succeeds wildly, capturing in aggregate the heady pleasures of surging imagination and artistic pursuit perhaps more vividly than any animated film of the past five or six years.
Visually, the film is something truly special — idiosyncratic without being flashy, informed by all the curlicued borders and ornate (some might say ostentatious) craftsmanship of medieval lettering the same sort of which are featured in Brendan’s tome. It is a style that suits the material quite well, rooted in a juxtaposition of geometric shapes and a dazzling array of colors. Some of the background compositions are a mini-cubist delight, and the abbey’s coterie of scribes, with their hunched necks and disproportionate bodies, reflect the skewed, looming perception of adults that adolescents often have. Moore also does a fascinating thing with light, sometimes indicating the flickering play of through-the-clouds sunlight with transparency, meaning little fragmented bits of the forest “shine” through Brendan when he goes to get the inkberries. It is small details like this that make The Secret of Kells so rapturously engaging.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case in turn stored in a cardboard slipcover, The Secret of Kells comes to DVD presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound and 2.0 stereo audio tracks and optional English subtitles. Its ample slate of bonus material clocks in at over two hours, including a nice feature-length audio commentary track with Moore, a clutch of storyboards, concept art and pre-production sketches, and behind-the-scenes material from the movie’s voice-recording sessions. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. A- (Movie) B+ (Disc)