The Secret of Kells – film review

Click the picture to embiggen and fully appreciate the sumptuous detail

When the Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature were announced, film fans around the globe were blindsided by the inclusion of one contender that barely anyone had heard of – “The Secret of Kells” had beaten multi-million dollar spinning Hollywood fare such as “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”, or even (feasibly) “Monsters vs Aliens” to a chance for the top prize. But, what Was this Secret?

Co-created between an Irish and French animation studio, “..Kells” is the tale of a 10th century mediaeval abbey in Ireland, and the fictitious adventures of 12 year old boy Brendan who lives there. The abbey is heavily fortified to protect its inhabitants from Viking marauders, although arguably it is just as difficult for people to get out as it is to get in. When a wizened old master illustrator arrives, wielding what is said to be a book of great power, Brendan cannot help but allow his inquisitive nature to get the better of him. Naturally, any number of religious or historically inclined individuals will know instantly what the book in question here is, but if you’re still guessing, I suggest you go look at a poster of Book of Eli for hints and tips.

It has to be said though that the storyline and plot feel rather slight and inconsequential here, and arguably at a runtime of 75minutes, it still feels a tad drawn out.   It would be easy to draw contemporary parallels of Violence versus Enlightenment, and the concept of the “fortified tower”  is one that still has resonance in a modern context..  However, it is not the plot which you will want to see, but the animation itself, and that is where this film really sings to every seat in the house. Every scene is beautifully designed and created in such a unique and refreshing way that it would not be unfair to say that the film is like a moving work of art – I struggle to remember the last time I have seen such detail on the screen. Overall, there is a nuanced sparse, forced-flat sort of look to the characters that has already drawn comparisons to Tartakosvsky’s animations like Samurai Jack or Clone Wars. With heavily outlined character shapes, and the overall religious context, what they most seem to be is the bold forms of characters in a stained glass window.

The world these stained glass people inhabit however is of a delightfully organic and almost impossibly beautific web of patterns and shifting forms that defy comprehension – when snowflakes fall from the sky we seem them as a multitude of celtic crosses, and yet like snowflakes no two are identical; when Brendan is playing in the forest the leaves are formed like fractals interlocking each other with mathematic precision. A battle with a dark force evolves into an almost cosmic, interstellar conflict between order and chaos. You really will want to have the blu-ray of this film so you can watch it in slow motion and enjoy every frame by frame by frame.

If you’re doubting my sincerity by now, then I urge you to take a look at the trailer:

The Secret of Kells is indubitably a unique cinematic experience – it’s clearly for a young audience (I’d say pitched at tens to early teens), but it doesn’t talk down to anyone, or dish out any unearnt life lessons, or sully itself with incongruous musical numbers and post modern references for the parents. There’s even a certain quality to it that reminded me of stiff educational animation like the Canterbury Tales that I was subjected to in the 1980s. The film manages to transcend this slightly distanced, dare I say it, stuffiness and is in fact something quite magical – both in its artistic execution, and in many ways, the story itself. Topped off with a beautiful haunting musical score and some pitch perfect voice work, most notably from Brendan Gleeson, there really isn’t much room to find fault with the whole experience.

So, an independantly produced and financed film about a historical, religious artefact – those 2 factors alone would make one think that it cannot stand a chance against major players like Pixar & Disney’s UP, or Fox & Anderson’s Mr Fox, and yet there it is, equal amongst its peers, and very possibly the Little Film That Could.

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One thought on “The Secret of Kells – film review

  1. Pingback: Creativity’s Victory – THE SECRET OF KELLS « Animation Artefacts

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