It’s easy to see why Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey’s The Secret of Kells was nominated for an Oscar, and it’s easy to see why it never stood a chance against Up and Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s a striking-looking film—at least after a certain point—but it’s rather dramatically inert, and its characters are about as two-dimensional as its art style. The art seeks to emulate the pages of an illuminated book—in this case, The Book of Kells from around 800 A.D. That attempted emulation, however, is what ultimately makes the film worthwhile.
In some respects, the film reminded me of Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues (2008) without being nearly as compelling, ambitious or inventive. The films, however, do bear certain visual similarities in their fantasticated moments, but where Sita is daring in its approach, The Secret of Kells is very traditional. It’s that traditional quality that keeps it from being a truly great film.
Yes, this is a movie that looks like no other. But it’s plotted like a lot of others and much of its animation isn’t a good deal better than Saturday-morning cartoons. I know that the latter is sometimes excused as the film attempting to reproduce the absence of perspective in ninth-century art, but since other parts of the film use some kind of multiplane effect to add depth to the images, this is hard for me to quite buy into. Face it, it simply makes parts of the film look and feel cheap. Occasionally, the animation recalls 1950s UPA cartoons, with something of the more disturbing elements of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. This last is particularly true of the angular, faceless Viking invaders, who might almost be modeled on the similarly angular brambles guarding Sleeping Beauty’s castle. During these moments, the simplified technique generally works.
The story line is traditional in both theme and structure. Yes, there really is a Book of Kells—sometimes referred to as “Ireland’s greatest treasure”—and yes, it is an elaborately illuminated book of the four gospels. That much is true. The film, however, is a clearly fantasticated attempt to tell how the book came into being, and the story the filmmakers come up with is what might best be called “cartoon basic.” You have the guileless, dedicated and brave young boy, Brendan (Evan McGuire); the wise old mentor, Aidan (Mick Lally); and the intractable father figure in the guise of Brendan’s uncle, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson). Mix in a sidekick cat, some comical stereotypical monks, an enchanted forest and a fairy girl, Aisling (Christen Mooney), with oversized Disney-heroine eyes, and that’s pretty much the recipe. It’s serviceable, but nothing more.
What is something more—and what makes the film worth your attention—are the visuals that capture something of the look of the actual Book of Kells. This is not something that is immediately obvious, which may be intentional. It takes a while for the film to hit its stride in this regard. The first part of the movie is a mix of tired slapstick and slightly labored exposition. But bear with it and it will reward you with ever-more elaborate and complex visuals that sometimes seem to be issuing from the most wonderful kaleidoscope imaginable. Attempting to describe them is fruitless. They simply have to be seen. No, this isn’t a great film, but it is a unique visual experience. Not rated, but contains images that might frighten young children.