The Secret of Kells
2009, NR, 75 min. Directed by Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey. Voices by Evan McGuire, Brendan Gleeson, Christen Mooney, Mick Lally, Liam Hourican, Michael McGrath.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 7, 2010
As splendid as this film is to look at, it’s easy to see why it was nominated this year for a best animated film Oscar. This Irish stunner was surely the most visually complex, colorful, and eye-dazzling of the bunch, even if its storyline could fit on the head of a pin. The Book of Kells, regarded as one of Ireland’s great national treasures, is an illustrated manuscript that contains the four Gospels of the New Testament. With its masterful calligraphy and lavishly decorated images, the Book of Kells combines Christian and Celtic iconography, mythological creatures, and traditional symbols. Its ink colors are gemlike, and the book originally possessed a bejeweled cover. The movie replicates much of the book’s ornate look, filling its frames with decorative filigrees and tantalizing shapes and colors. The film is a wonder of predominantly hand-drawn animation and, moreover, is a fascinating exercise in re-creating the two-dimensional perspective common to art of the Middle Ages. (Curiously, in these postmodernist times, the flat planes appear almost cubist, with multiple angles compressed into a single frame.) Brendan (voiced by McGuire) is a young boy who lives in the Abbey of Kells, a remote medieval monastery. Instead of focusing on their work in the scriptorium, Brother Cellach (Gleeson) directs the monks to work with the villagers on building ever higher encircling walls to protect them from pillaging barbarians. The goal is to protect the Book of Kells from marauders; the film’s lesson is that in order to be precious, an object must first be shared with the world. When a legendary master illuminator arrives at the abbey, Brendan becomes his avid assistant, but must venture into the forbidden forest beyond the abbey wall to get ink berries. There he meets Aisling (Mooney), a fairylike girl who becomes his forest guide. The forest setting allows the filmmakers another set-piece to douse with their fantastic imagery, this one full of imaginary flora and fauna. At only 75 minutes in length, The Secret of Kells doesn’t waste a lot of time on its undernourished plot. Its images, however, will linger for much longer.