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Secret of Kells, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Fortunately, not being kept secret any more."
5 stars

Like many fans of animation, I have a certain ambivalence toward the "Best Animated Feature" category at the Academy Awards. I like the idea of a sorely underappreciated medium getting some recognition, though I also worry that it will mark them as second-tier, and some of the selections made have caused me to question the nominators. Still, nominating this somewhat under-the-radar film from Ireland probably got it a much larger release than it would have had otherwise, so in doing so, they've done something right and done something good.

In 9th Century Ireland, the village of Kells builds walls to protect itself from the Norsemen who sweep over the island like a merciless wave. The abbot's nephew, Brendan (voice of Evan McGuire), is less interested in defense than in helping the other monks, charged with transcribing knowledge. The finest scribe, they say, is Brother Aidan (voice of Mick Lally), who coincidentally arrives at Kells with warning that the Vikings will not be far behind. Still, he remains set on completing his book, and sees Brendan as a potentially exceptional apprentice. When Brendan ventures into the forest to find berries with which to make ink, he upsets his uncle Cellach (voice of Brendan Gleeson), but also meets Aisling (voice of Christen Mooney), a spirit who lives there.

An early shot tells us a great deal about both the film's inspirations and the visual style to come: We see the wall around the village as a perfect circle, as if viewed from directly above, but the central tower points to the top of the screen as if shot from the ground. This sort of inconsistent perspective is common in the illuminated manuscripts that the monks create, and while director Tomm Moore only uses the device sparingly, it gives the film both an extra bit of period detail and sense of the fantastic. It's a welcome break from the relative sameness of digitally animated movies, which are not necessarily always concerned about realism, but how things look in three dimensions.

The characters are three-dimensional, though. Brendan is a nice, likable kid, guilty about how he deceives his uncle but unable to help how he is drawn to other things. Cellach is harsh and perhaps not suited to parenthood; both Gleeson's voice and the way the character is drawn (somehow managing to be both tall and thin and burly) tells us of a man suited for leadership but feeling its burden. The clash with Aidan is obvious; Aidan can transform from maddeningly optimistic to defeated in moments, cheerful with his ideals but clearly feeling the Norsemen are a force of nature that men cannot stand against. And then there's Aisling, rendered almost entirely in pale greens, with long hair and big eyes. She can become many things but we don't see her change, and even when yelling at or scolding Brendan, Christen Mooney gives her an otherworldly whisper.

The relationship between Brendan and Aisling is wonderful to watch; we know from her narration as the film opens that she has lived for centuries, although there are things that scare her. They are friends in the manner of children once they first meet, but their relationship changes over time; is it because this is Brendan's coming of age story, and as he becomes a man he thinks of magical creatures like Aisling differently, or because she represents the land itself, and her encounters with unnatural things (be they supernatural evil or human buildings) weakens her? Perhaps a little of both.

Moore and company are never overly focused on the coming-of-age or spirit-of-the-land elements, though; The Secret of Kells plays as a hugely entertaining family adventure. The Norsemen are fearsome villains, portrayed as their victims must have seen them, all horns and muscle and weapons. Another villain - "the dark one" - exists for Brendan to prove his mettle against, in a scene that is both thrilling and eye-popping. There's plenty of comic relief, too, with Aidan's silent but expressive cat commenting on the action around him, and nice banter between Aidan and Aisling.

In the last couple of years, we've quietly entered a fairly remarkable period for animation, though people might not realize this until they look back and realize just how much good stuff has been produced. "The Secret of Kells" is one that will be remembered, both for its unique setting and style and for being one of the best-told stories, regardless of how it was made.

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originally posted: 03/27/10 18:16:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 13th Annual European Union Film Festival For more in the 13th Annual European Union Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Traverse City Film Festival For more in the 2010 Traverse City Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/18/18 Louis Snows My daily cup of tea 5 stars
5/27/15 Feliks Mihelj Beautiful 5 stars
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  DVD: 05-Oct-2010



Directed by
  Tomm Moore
  Nora Twomey

Written by
  Tomm Moore
  Fabrice Ziolkowski

  Brendan Gleeson
  Liam Hourican
  Mick Lally

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