It was the surprised gasp heard round the world. As Oscar nominations were being handed out a few weeks ago, the Animated Film category got a resounding studio slap in the face when Ireland's The Secret of Kells walked away with one of the five coveted slots. No Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. No Astro Boy or Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. Instead, amongst the usual suspects from Disney and Pixar, along with the equally wonderful work of Coraline and The Fantastic Mr. Fox was this little known, little seen effort focusing on one of the Emerald Isle's greatest national treasures and long dead art of book illumination. Don't think this is a case of Academy voters patronizing some independent artists in their attempt to main creatively relevant within a domain dominated by the House of Mouse, however. In this case, The Secret of Kells deserves all the accolades - and potential awards - it's receiving.
We meet little Brendan (Evan McGuire), living in a walled village in 9th century Ireland. His uncle is a monk, desperate to keep the town safe from advancing Vikings. These "dark ones" are ravaging Europe, and Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) believes his strategy (building a massive stone barrier) will save them all. One day, a famous illuminator named Brother Aidan (Mick Lally) comes to Kells, seeking refuge from the oncoming threat. He befriends Brendan and promises to teach him the ways of calligraphy that are used in the celebrated tome he is charged with protecting. Hoping to find a special color of green in the nearby forest, Brendan disobeys his uncle and heads out into the woods. There he meets a nymph, Aisling (Christen Mooney), who teaches him the way of nature. But when a special glass gem is needed to complete the task, Brendan is forced to confront the evil forces roaming the wilderness.
As a work of art, as a pure pen and ink experience, The Secret of Kells is amazing. It’s a spellbinding triumph, stylized and specialized to such an extreme that it often takes your aesthetic breath away while equally filling you up with hope. Using a unique design that provides every character with a subtextual look and form, directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey and their team of animators create an astonishing vision of old world wonder. The town of Kells comes alive with varying earthy elements, little grass huts supporting an ominous bordering presence. The wall (and in the center of town, a skyscraping tower) provides the film with focal points that mirror the solemn storyline being told. Equally intriguing are the surrounding woods, water-colored and loaded with life. Aisling’s presence provides a superb counterbalance to the dark, demonic Nordic hordes.
The outside threat, represented by shadows and jagged angles, creates a cloud of horror that really lifts the films lighter moments. As whimsical and wonderful as the forest material is, it would be too cloying and cutesy without a threat. The need for such an offset, a way of illustrating the archetypical clash between good and evil, is indicative to this type of folklore. Without it, we’d never believe in the magic being made, or the importance of Brother Aidan and his book. This allows Uncle Cellach and the rest of the monks to be multidimensional and complex. While Brendan stands in stark contrast to the rest of the characters (his living the basic boy’s adventure tale, albeit in a starkly religious context), the Vikings – and the unseen force inside the forest cave – provide a nice level of implied terror.
But it’s the drawing that will delight you, animation of the highest form, so fluid and refreshing that it's indicative of real life retrofitted to color and contrast. Lines are clean and crisp, backgrounds ornate and offering undeniable depth. When Brendan walks into the woods, they literally come alive with movement, the smallest details whirling dervish-like in the corners of the frame. Even more impressively, Moore and Twomey get us to care about these cartoon characters. Through the careful use of facial cues and physical gestures, along with the already present contrast in shapes, they set up a dynamic that is always interesting to watch, always inventive in its connection to the work in question. The Book of Kells remains a fascinating work, gorgeous in its intricate, interlocking symbolism. The animation really accentuates this aspect, providing pathways toward greater appreciation of how the volume was created and what it means.
It’s a shame then that the level of invention in the visuals doesn’t wholly match the meaning in the narrative. The Secret of Kells is simplistic in its message, measuring out clear cut lessons in ways that even the youngest viewer would plainly recognize and welcome. Brendan is, in general, forced to defy authority to meet his predestined fate. Nothing new there. He communes with nature (in the form of Aisling) in order to gain a greater wisdom of the world around him. Uncle Cellach dedication to the albatross which is the wall reveals his inherent weaknesses while the other monks tend to represent elements of life (brains, brawn, belligerence) that really does little to deepen the mystery. Still, it’s enough to tie Moore and Twomey's brilliant work on, supportive of scenes so stunning they melt the onscreen sky and redecorate the very fabric of the organic plane presented.
In fact, The Secret of Kells is eye candy sweeter than most. It’s mesmerizing in its never-ending innovation and caloric in pure creativity. From a solely enigmatic standpoint, the film stands strongly with the work of their American cousins. Oscar needn’t be embarrassed over including this movie among its five finalists. When compared to the commercial crassness usually coming out of the studio system, something so dedicated to celebrating art and artisans retains a great deal of its dramatic pull. Certainly, some of the material is aimed directly at a demographic that responds to pretty pictures and little else. But when mixed with the mythology and cinematic majesty, it comes across as a classic. The Secret of Kells may have come out of nowhere to shock the motion picture establishment, but now that it’s known, it deserves it's proffered place.