Review: The Secret of Kells

The Book of Kells is Ireland’s greatest treasure: an ancient book filled with exquisite illuminations.

Technically, “The Secret of Kells” is a fictionalized account about the making of that book. But it’s far more than that — it’s a visual hymn to Ireland’s history, a coming-of-age tale, and a parable about Christianity coming to Ireland. Modern animation is suffused with exquisite Celtic art, music and a sense of fairy magic, and wrapped around a seemingly simple story about a boy learning about the power of art.

Abbot Cellach is determined to save the Abbey of Kells from the Viking invaders, so he’s having the monks (including his nephew Brendan) build a vast wall around the abbey. But when the illuminator Brother Aiden arrives, he brings with him the legendary Book of Iona. Brendan is fascinated by the Book, and ventures out into the forest — against the abbot’s orders — to fetch ink-making supplies for Aiden.

He befriends a strange fairy girl named Aisling, and nature’s beauty inspires his art — until his uncle discovers that he’s sneaking out, and forbids him to have anything to do with the forest or Aiden. But Brendan still wants to become a true master of illumination. And to finish the Book, he must go outside the abbey once more, and snatch away the magical Eye of an ancient sleeping evil…

You can see this movie from many angles — it’s a coming-of-age story, a homage to Irish culture, a story about the importance of art, and a parable about Christianity supplanting Celtic paganism (whilst drawing on its beauty and richness). But however you see it, “The Secret of Kells” is a beautiful story with a calm simplicity, and a slightly quirky sense of humor.

It also tackles some darker, more mature themes — Brendan is exiled to a dungeon for disobeying his uncle, and he ventures into the cave of an ancient god surrounded by wriggling black roots. But directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey drop in lots of beautiful little moments as well, such as Aisling magically “singing” Aiden’s cat into a floating spirit.

It also has a truly unique style of animation: “Kim Possible” style (simple designs with lots of sharp and/or rounded edges) with vibrant jewel-toned backdrops (the sunlit emerald hues of the forests). The best parts are when Celtic symbols and art are woven in, especially since they tend to float through the air like butterflies.

The writers also give great care to sketching out characters — Brendan, the little monk who discovers the “miracles” of the world; Aisling, the elusive wolf-girl who assists him; and the grandfatherly Brother Aiden. On the flip-side we have Abbot Cellach, whose obsession with keeping Kells safe causes him to shut out art and beauty. No, he’s not a 2-D bad guy — he’s just desperate to preserve his community against the onslaught of their enemies.

Obviously it’s not on the level of the Book of Kells, but “The Secret of Kells” is still a beautiful work of cinematic art. Adults will love it, kids will love it, and anyone with the blood of Ireland will marvel.

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