Understanding the struggle of youth is a difficult one – especially for filmmakers, who are mostly adults and, as such, have lost sight on what it’s like to be a child. Still, despite the natural progression of forgetting that struggle, the filmmakers behind The Secret of Kells managed to create the story of a 12-year old boy living in 9th century Europe so universally that everyone can find themselves in him. And they did it by hand.
Brendan (voiced by Evan MacGuire) is fascinated with the art of illumination, but his uncle – the Abbot of Kells (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) – is intent on putting the brothers to work building a wall to protect their city from the oncoming hordes. When the master illuminator Brother Aiden of Iona (voiced by Mick Lally) enters Kells with stories of the horde destroying his people, Brendan chooses to finish the mythical book of Kells in order to bring it to the people and save them.
The first thing that jumps off the screen is the look of the animation. Not content to stick with one style, The Secret of Kells is much happier making your jaw drop with different methods. Whether it’s the simple cartoon quickness of Aisling the fairy, the block style, or the stories within the story that appear drawn by childlike prodigies, the film delivers on the visuals.
The look is reminiscent of the flattened images of Kung Fu Panda (except the reds and blacks are traded for greens and whites). There is a balance here of the simple and the ornate that works incredibly well, shifting and changing from scene to scene where the people are drawn as amalgamations of basic shapes and the world of the forest is a Celtic whirl of complexity.
However, the feel of the movie is reminiscent of another secret – The Secret of Nimh. A simple story with deeper implications featuring characters that stay with you long after the credits roll. It follows the rules right down to the letter – introducing our hero Brendan with a hilarious goose chase (that also works well as a metaphor). It then proceeds to show us the dire nature of the village’s future through the eyes of a young boy, forcing us to sneak into crawlspaces to eavesdrop on the adults. It follows up by allowing us to explore the outside world and learning alongside Brendan as he takes on something far above his maturity level.
Just like Nimh, Kells has the potential to become a lifelong favorite.
By following those rules, the story and its characters are fairly standard, but the film creates them with such love that they still manage to captivate. They feel familiar, like the wear of a worn-in shoe, instead of stale and done-before.
The performances are all strong. Gleeson has the only recognizable voice, but his Abott Cellach is gruff and wise all at once. He does well to represent the thinking that stone walls can keep out the inevitable with just his intonation. He sounds like an old man trying hard not to die or to let his ideals go with him.
Of course, the movie hinges on MacGuire’s performance, and he delivers that wonder and fear that we all tend to start life with. The kind that stays with us enough to emerge fresh when a film draws it out correctly.
There are only two competing problems with the movie.
The story is, as mentioned, fairly simple. In one way, this is perfect for the kind of story that’s being told – and especially perfect for children. However, the adventure is delayed in favor of showing as much of the village and as much of Brother Aiden’s mentorship as possible. Unfortunately, this segment outstays its welcome a bit – and relies on our love for the characters since it’s not doing much to advance a story.
The second problem is that the adventure itself is a little unclear. Despite being a simple story about a young man traveling into the dark woods for a jewel, its unclear as to why what he’s doing is important. Finishing the book is the antithesis to building the wall, but even if the wall fails, nothing is done to explain what the book can do to save the people. The strange and abrupt ending bolsters this fact and makes the deficiency all that more prominent.
These stumbles are ultimately forgivable because of just how beautiful the film is and how well-crafted the characters are. And these points can’t be overstated. The visuals are earnestly stunning – the time, craftsmanship and creativity setting up camp on screen and living there for a little over and hour. The characters endear themselves to you at first glance. Plus, unlike many of the animated films of 2009, Kells is directed completely at children, so a little simplicity is ultimately understandable.
Sweet and dark, dangerous and light-hearted, The Secret of Kells delivers on everything you’d want from an animated film. And everything you’d want from a story about a young man and young girl on an adventure to save their world.
The Upside: Gorgeous animation, sweet characters, and a familiar story.
The Downside: Some confusing story elements and a strange ending.
On the Side: It was nominated for an Academy Award. And for good reason.