When this year’s Oscar nominations were announced, perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the inclusion of “The Secret Of Kells” as a nominee for Best Animated Feature. The film opens in limited release this weekend, and while I doubt it’s going to steal the Oscar out from under Pixar, I hope the attention that’s been given the film draws an audience to what might otherwise have been a very hard sell for families who are used to simply following the Disney or the Dreamworks brands around by the nose.
“The Secret Of Kells” is steeped in Irish history and folklore, and directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey brings an incredible sense of composition and style to bear in telling the story of the creation of the Book Of Kells, a famous illuminated manuscript from somewhere around 800 A.D. The film’s art direction draws inspiration from the way the actual Book Of Kells was illustrated, as well as artists like Gustav Klimt, but it’s still very modern and very approachable for young audiences who have grown up with shows like “Dexter’s Laboratory” or “Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends.” Evan McGuire voices the main character, a young boy named Brendan, who is being raised at the Abbey of Kells, where preparations are being made for an impending attack by raiding Vikings. Those preparations are the all-consuming focus of the Abbot (Brendan Gleeson), and as far as he’s concerned, a wall around the Abbey is the only thing that will save them.
Brendan becomes obsessed with another type of salvation, though, when he’s introduced to the art of illumination, when he sees the unfinished Book of Kells and meets Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), the master illuminator. Aidan tells him that the Book can save people more effectively than any wall can, and since Aidan’s own home was wiped out by the Vikings, Brendan is confused, drawn to try to understand what it is that Brother Aidan means. Since the film never explicitly explains that the Book Of Kells was the four Gospels of the New Testament along with some other connective text, kids may not make the connection, but it’s obvious that Aidan’s idea of salvation has little to do with the physical world.
As Brendan becomes more and more drawn to the art of illumination, he starts to venture outside the walls of the Abbey in search of various things that will help with the work that Aidan is doing, and in the process, he is exposed to a much stranger and richer world than he ever knew existed, which is where Celtic folklore comes into play. The combination of early Catholic dogma and Celtic mythology and the looming threat of Viking invasion creates a lyrical tapestry in the film spiked with moments of dark and surreal danger.
Everything about the film works for me. The voice cast is all effective and appropriate, it is visually dazzling even in its quietest moments, and it builds to a very unexpected and moving conclusion. I think parents who take younger children to it will have to have a conversation afterwards about what everything in the film meant, but that’s not a negative. I love films that lead to real conversation afterwards, and in this case, the subjects might include history, religion, and folklore, all subjects that are sure to fire young imaginations.
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