‘Kells’ Animation, Story Compel Audiences

by Andrew Williams
Columnist

Hello, and welcome to The Rambler’s newest column, “The Cartoon Review.” As a lover of great animation and all things nostalgic, I am going to review feature-length animated films both old and new, famous and obscure. If you have a soft spot for the works of Disney, Pixar, Miyazaki, DreamWorks and others, this column is for you. (And if you are wondering what happened to Shannon Baldo’s column, don’t worry; she’ll be back next week.)

If you paid attention to the Academy Awards last year, you may remember hearing mention of a film called “The Secret of Kells,” one of the nominees for Best Animated Feature which I had the great pleasure of watching recently for the first time.

The movie tells a fictionalized account of the making of the “Book of Kells,” an illuminated manuscript of the gospels widely considered to be one of the most beautiful books ever created that is also Ireland’s finest national treasure.

At its heart, “The Secret of Kells” is a celebration of culture, history and folklore made by an Irish animation studio primarily — I suspect — for the Irish people. Watching it made me feel like I was on a nice trip to some exotic place; being an outsider, you can’t fully appreciate all you see, but the mystery only makes the experience more magical.

In the ninth century, Viking raiders threaten the Abbey of Kells, and the abbot (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) obsesses over the building of a mighty wall that will keep out the invaders. A monk named Brother Aiden arrives at the abbey bearing the legendary “Book of Iona,” which, when completed, will “turn darkness into light.” Brother Aiden asks the abbot’s 12-year-old nephew, Brendan, to help him finish it, much to the abbot’s displeasure.

One of the film’s many charms is the way it blends history with Celtic mythology and folklore. To help Brother Aiden, Brendan must venture outside the abbey walls into an enchanted forest containing little nuts that make brilliant green inks. Along the way, he encounters a shape-shifting fairy girl named Aisling and a terrifying creature called Crom Cruac, whose crystal-like eyes are needed to help produce the infinitesimal detailing of the book’s pages.

That the movie takes itself so seriously makes it all the more mesmerizing. It wants you to believe that all this actually happened.

What makes the film truly remarkable, however, is the animation itself. Imitating the style of the book’s beautiful illuminations, every frame has been lavishly decorated with intricate patterns, borders, arches and symbols, all colored boldly and brilliantly. The flat, simplified drawings of the characters look even move like they came straight out of a medieval tapestry, and yet the animation itself does not in any way feel limited.

I was amazed at the sheer amount of creativity that went into each shot, and there seemed to be no end to it. I can only imagine how magnificent it must look on a big screen.

I can’t say the film is as much a success on an emotional level, because it doesn’t really take the time to develop its characters beyond basic stereotypes. On the other hand, maybe that’s the point. “The Secret of Kells” is about culture, folklore and the history behind Ireland’s most treasured relic, and to place too much attention on individual characters would have overshadowed the movie’s real focus.

All in all, if you haven’t seen this movie yet, check it out. It may not have the emotional depth of “Up,” but it’s still a refreshingly unique and enchanting movie. You won’t be disappointed.

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