The Secret of Kells (DVD)

The book that turns darkness into light.

The year 2009 was a great one for animation, and it showed at the Oscars, where the nominees included Henry Selick’s masterpiece Coraline, the Pixar blockbuster Up, Disney’s excellent return to 2D with The Princess and the Frog, and Wes Anderson’s quirky stop motion comedy Fantastic Mr. Fox. Then there was that other nominee, some strange-looking thing from Ireland that barely played in a handful of theaters—The Secret of Kells.

It’s the little movie that could. The Oscar nomination opened numerous doors, providing The Secret of Kells a wider theatrical release, where it found more critical acclaim, followed by this extras-packed DVD. What is the secret? Open the cover to the illuminated book and let’s find out.

In medieval Ireland, young Brendan (Evan McGuire) lives in Kells, an abbey. There, a group of monks spend their time creating illuminating manuscripts in their workshop. The abbot (Brendan Gleeson, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) lives in fear that the Vikings will soon attack, and he has forbidden Brendan from leaving the abbey and exploring the forest outside. Brendan is excited to meet Brother Aidan (Mick Lally, The Secret of Roan Inish), who survived a Viking attack at another abbey. Aiden is working a new book, one which will be the greatest, most beautiful manuscript ever created. To help Aidan concoct the special ink he needs, Brendan dares to enter the forest in search of a specific kind of berry. In the foreboding woods, he meets Aisling (Christen Moody), a young girl with a mysterious connection to the land. Brendan and Aisling secretly brave danger in the woods to help Aidan create the book. All the while, the Vikings armies are on the march, getting closer and closer.

You’d think that a bunch monks sitting around making a book wouldn’t be the best idea for a family-friendly fantasy adventure, but The Secret of Kells manages it brilliantly. Turns out this is partially based on a true story. The Book of Kells is an actual illuminated manuscript containing the Four Gospels, known throughout the world as one of the finest works of medieval art and considered one of Ireland’s greatest national treasures. It’s currently on display at the library in Trinity College in Dublin. It’s notable for its meticulous detail and color work, far beyond any other manuscript created at the time. In its long history, the book traveled the world before returning to Ireland, and it is believed to have survived an actual attack by Vikings.

The behind-the-scenes story of this movie follows a similarly long path to creation, except without as much Viking slaughter. The first work on the film was done in 1999. Since then, it went through of decade of production, with a team of 200 animators in five countries chipping away at the animation as the directors and producers constantly struggled for financing. Movies that have such rocky histories are usually never made or end up terrible, but in this case, the creators’ passion for the movie shows through in every hand-drawn cell.

In The Secret of Kells, co-directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey set out to tell the story of the book’s creation, combining the actual history with local folklore. As a result, we get a movie that mixes Christian monks and their beliefs, with the magic and mythology of forest and animal spirits. The dual concoction shouldn’t work, but does, by putting both ideologies in harmony with one another, instead of in conflict. This is done by showing religion and magic as two parts of one world, united against the common threat of the Vikings. The characters’ beliefs and the magic around them are not preachy or in-your-face. Instead, they are woven into the story as part of the setting. So the movie can be enjoyed on its own merits, no matter how pious or non-pious you might be.

Using the real-life Book of Kells as an inspiration, the visuals impress throughout. The characters and their world have a style to them that is in some ways familiar and in other ways all their own. Many viewers and critics have compared the visuals to Genndy Tartakovsky’s landmark TV series Samurai Jack. On the commentary, one of the directors even describes The Secret of Kells as “in between Disney and Samurai Jack.” On that show, the visuals were deceptively simple. The characters were drawn with little detail, but that lack of line work offered them fluid movements and subtle expressions. Likewise, the backgrounds were often stark and minimalist, but the way they were framed on screen made it feel like the series took place in a vast, open world. All the same is true of The Secret of Kells. The characters’ bizarre shapes and big-eyed cartoony faces take some getting used to, but once you do, you’ll discover them able to express a wide range of emotion. The more you watch the movie, the more little details you notice. With the original illuminated manuscript as a jumping-off point, a lot of touches come from the classic book. The forest plant life, the shapes in and around the abbey, and even each individual snowflake all contain visual references to old-timey Celtic symbols. Transitions are often captured in triptych style, with split-screen of three images at once, again based on a medieval style.

This is not a movie you watch, it’s a movie you experience. It is not plot-heavy; instead the shifting in tone and a sense of discovery is what moves the story from beginning to end. The movie captures the sense of wonder in a way so few recent movies have been able to. First there is Brendan’s amazement of Aiden’s stories of the outside world, followed by Brendan’s creativity emerging as a result of his time spent with Aiden. Then there is Brendan’s exploration of the forest, at times an either beautiful or frightening place. His interaction with Aisling is cute and charming, but also mysterious, as she represents the unknown. She is strange and magical, and to Brendan, the world outside the abbey is strange and magical. Also, with the Vikings on the horizon and wolves prowling the trees, Aisling’s presence reminds Brendan—and us—that the outside world contains more than violence and terror, but beauty and goodness as well.

The movie goes deepest into the fantasy genre out in the forest, where Brendan must confront Crom Cruach, a sinister spirit who lives there. This beastie has in its possession an item desperately needed to finish the book. It’s the movie’s take on the classic hero’s journey/slay-the-dragon-and-bring-home-its-treasure thing. The creators, however, put a couple of interesting spins on this old idea. First is Crom Cruach’s look, based loosely on deep sea creatures rather than a traditional dragon. Second is the way the monster is dispatched, and the weapon used to do so. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a solution that makes perfect metaphorical sense, illustrating—if you’ll pardon the pun—the movie’s overall themes. Then there are the Vikings. Depicted more as a force of nature than individual characters, any time the Vikings appear on screen the movie’s visuals make a stark change. Although this a bright and colorful world, the Vikings’ presence turns it almost monochromatic, with everything turning black, white or red. This is the animators’ way of depicting blood and carnage on a massive scale without actually showing the blood on screen.

For another visual motif, notice how often circles are shown at the center of the screen. Part of this comes from their use in the original Book of Kells, but part of it illustrates the circular nature of the story. For one, it begins in spring and takes viewers through the four seasons, through a harsh winter and ultimately at another spring. It also shows how the characters’ journey, as well as the journey taken by the book itself, starts in a bright, cheery place, but must traverse change, coldness and darkness before reentering the light. This is reflected through the character of the Abbot. At first, he seems like our villain, concerned more with building up the abbey walls more than creating a cool book. Knowing how frightening the Vikings are, though, we know that the Abbot is stern because he has to be in order to protect his people. As his arc is circular, we see how the weight of all this strains him emotionally, eventually breaking him down at the time of the Viking attack. As the circle comes back around, though, he too reenters the light by the conclusion of the story.

A bunch of the other monks at the abbey are from various corners of the world, with many viewers criticizing the animators of everything from historical inaccuracy to stereotyping. The creators argue that in medieval times, Ireland was something of a crossroads of the world, with travelers from all over the globe settling there. These arguments seem irrelevant to me, seeing as the monks don’t play that large a role in the story. Their multi-national backgrounds added just enough variety and personality to make the abbey an interesting place, so that it feels more like Brendan’s home and not his prison (at least not initially).

Because the movie is so visually rich, its fitting that those visuals impress on this DVD. The colors are bright and vivid throughout, and the character movements are smooth and fluid. The sound is even more impressive. When Brendan first enters the forest, the ambient sounds come from all speakers, creating an immersive feeling and representing how Brendan sees the forest as a strange, alienating place. For extras, we get an informative commentary by the directors, followed by some informative featurettes, offering a glimpse at the voice actors in action, the storyboards, and the years’ worth of concept art done on the movie and how much it changed from the early days. This continues in the original pitch trailer, which is animated in a more realistic-looking style. This trailer comes with its own commentary. There’s also a short animated bit created for the Oscar broadcast, and the U.S. theatrical trailer.

I don’t know about you, but I love animation. It’s one of the most expressive and powerful art forms we have. There’s just so much that can be accomplished with animation. So whenever someone attempts something outside the animated norm, I want to see it. The Secret of Kells is one such experiment, and a successful one. It’s a great film, one that rewards upon multiple viewings, and my fellow animation lovers should check it out right away.

The Verdict

The Secret of Kells goes where I cannot. Not guilty.

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