We continue our series of reviews chronicling all of the (non-Studio Ghibli) animated films distributed by GKIDS Films — some of the most original and breathtakingly beautiful animated films from around the world — and how they hold up for a young American audience.
We’re traveling chronologically (the entire retrospective is found here), and this time we’ve got…
The Secret of Kells (2009): Tomm Moore, director
What’s it about?
The film follows Brendan, a young boy living in a remote medieval outpost. Brendan is ostensibly a monk’s apprentice at the Monastery of Kells and under the care of his stern uncle, Abbot Cellach. His uncle is obsessed with building an enormous wall around the abbey and surrounding village to protect them from oncoming Viking attacks.
Brendan’s imagination is fired when he overhears some of the monks talk about the impending arrival of a master illuminator – Brother Aidan – and his Book of Iona, a book that has the power to turn darkness into light. Upon his arrival, Brother Aidan enlists Brendan’s help to complete the unfinished book.
Brendan’s first mission is to enter the (enchanted) forest outside the wall on a quest for specific nuts used to make ink. It’s there that he meets the fairy Aisling, a mysterious young wolf-girl, and the two soon form a bond of friendship.
Brendan’s burning desire to help Brother Aidan finish the book leads him to break the strict rules established by his uncle, Brother Cellach. He goes outside the wall, he travels through the forest, he refuses to help build the wall, he betrays his uncle’s trust – all in the name of artistic integrity.
But then the Vikings attack and everything goes south.
What are the cultures at play? And how about the languages?
The film is grounded in Irish history and Celtic mythology. The story itself is based on the origin of the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript (like the film’s Book of Iona) that contains the four Gospels of the New Testament. It is thought to be more than 1,200 years old, was housed at the Abbey of Kells for centuries, and is today located at Trinity College in Dublin.
Aspects of the story, especially the supernatural elements, come from Celtic folklore. For example, aislings are a feature of 17th and 18th century Irish poetry.
The original language of the film is English, and the cast is entirely composed of Irish actors. The cast is fantastically good, and the only voice that might be recognizable to an American audience is Brendan Gleeson as Brother Cellach.
Will my kids like it?
Very likely. The film has a slower pace and more quiet, “thoughtful” moments than the standard (Disney or Pixar) animated film they might be familiar with, but the payoff is huge. Kids will undoubtedly relate to Brendan. Though they may not relate to the specifics of his situation (i.e., they’re not apprentice monks living in a medieval abbey), the obstacles he faces and issues he deals with are somewhat universal. Brendan must follow rules he doesn’t understand, he feels trapped by his uncle, he’s lured toward the unknown and forbidden, and he wants to do what makes him happy.
Aisling is also an incredibly strong character who is imbued with magical power and raw courage. She acts as Brendan’s guide/teacher for the world beyond the abbey, and she’s also an excellent mischief-maker. She was absolutely a highlight of the film for my kids, and I have no doubt she’ll be the same for most young viewers.
Will I like it?
Most definitely. The Secret of Kells is a masterpiece. It’s the first true masterpiece we’ve seen in our GKIDS retrospective so far. If you’re an animation fan and you haven’t seen this yet, you owe it to yourself to correct that oversight immediately.
The animation style incorporates bold lines and vibrant colors, and it’s nearly impossible to look away. Characters and environments are very geometrical and “flat” in their design, which betrays their complexity but makes the whole thing look….sparse. “Clean” might be a better term, but either way, there’s an economy of images throughout that allows the audience to focus on what’s important and appreciate the beauty on display.
The animation also draws from its own subject, and everything you see on screen feels as if it leapt to life from the pages of a book. This film depicts the creation of an illuminated manuscript that has the power to turn darkness into light. As such, it makes perfect sense that Brendan’s story (which is the story of that creation) looks and feels the same way. Still, the film has a depth (both figuratively and literally) that most modern blockbuster 3D animated features lack. It’s completely captivating.
Is there anything objectionable for young kids?
Not particularly. The battle sequences when the Vikings attack the village are intense but no more so than in something like Mulan. There are also a few scenes when main characters appear to die on screen (including one scene where a character does actually die), so keep that in mind if you have a sensitive viewer.
How can I see it?
The film is available on Blu-Ray and DVD and can be ordered from the usual places, including Amazon. It’s also currently available to stream on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu. Special features to the Blu-Ray include an audio commentary with the director, co-director, and art director; voice recording sessions; a video of Tomm Moore presenting preproduction sketches and inspiration images, and a few other short videos. It also comes packaged with a 24-page prequel graphic novel.
As I said, The Secret of Kells is a masterpiece. If you’re a fan of film at all, go watch it. Since it’s so readily available on instant streaming services right now, you have no excuse. And once you’ve finished, do be sure to watch Tomm Moore’s follow-up, Song of the Sea. It’s equally magnificent. (See my review here.)