Tomm Moore’s 2009 Irish fantasy film The Secret of Kells was my introduction to animation studio Cartoon Saloon and subsequently indie animation distributor GKIDS, making this movie an important milestone in the broadening of my taste in animation outside of America and Japan.
Directed by Moore and based on his own story, The Secret of Kells draws a lot from Celtic mythology and even more prominently, Celtic art.
The story involves a community from the Abbey of Kells which includes a group of monks, a young apprentice named Brendan (Evan McGuire) and their leader Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) who is obsessed with building a wall around the village to keep out an impending viking attack, much to the dismay of the overworked villagers.
Brendan is forbidden to leave the village by Cellach, but one day when Brother Aidan (Mick Lally) comes to the village to complete a book that “turns darkness into light,” Brendan is secretly enlisted by Aidan to go into the forest to bring back supplies that will help Aidan finish the sacred book, including gall nuts for ink and a certain magic crystal eye guarded by a deity of darkness.
It is also in this forest that Brendan meets a mysterious girl named Aisling (Christen Mooney) who ends up being a vital ally in his quest.
The brisk pace of the movie doesn’t leave a ton of room for character development, which sometimes makes the movie come off a bit too plotty, but all the necessary aspects of the characters are conveyed well enough, such as Brendan’s strained relationship with Cellach and his amusing back-and-forth dialogue with Aisling.
There’s even some good character development when Brendan gradually changes the way he feels about one of the other main characters over the course of the film.
But by far the biggest star of this film is the art direction by Ross Stewart, which is not only superbly stylistic in its beauty but creatively implemented within the freedom of movement granted by the medium of animation. In other words, the movie is entertaining even with the volume turned down.
One of the best examples of the film’s creativity is how it is able to blend stylistic abstraction with suspense in the battle with the monster Crom Cruach, although the abundance of stylism doesn’t always blend smoothly with emotional scenes as the artwork is so distractingly gorgeous that it tends to hog the spotlight from the story. Thankfully by the time the film ends, I felt I had spent enough time with the characters for the emotional payoff to feel satisfying.
I sometimes wished the humor wasn’t so flat and that the film was a bit longer, but it was never boring to look at. The art style is a unique blend of UPA and Eyvind Earle, and almost every frame would make a good piece of wall art.
The art style alone makes The Secret of Kells worth watching, but you might just end up loving the characters too, even if it takes a bit longer to warm up to the characters than the art.
Have you seen The Secret of Kells? Tell us your thoughts below!
Edited by: Kajsa Rain Forden