This is my 100th post for this blog and I’m not the kind of person who lets meaningless milestones go by without celebrating them which is why I’ve chosen some very special subject matter to mark the occasion. The Secret of Kells is a film that I will always associate with the focus of my last review, Coraline for a number of reasons. I saw both for the first time on the same day. I bought both films on DVD at the same time from the same place. Both were released in the same year, 2009, the best year ever for animation. Both were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Both lost out to Pixar’s Up, a film that would have been a deserving winner in any other year, but not ahead of those two. Both films were made by animation studios that are not household names. Both films have a young protagonist who ventures into a magical world. Both get pretty dark in the third act. Both feature a cat. And most importantly they are both astounding achievements. My DVD copies of the two films sit side by side on my animation shelf.
Most reviewers aren’t disposed towards grandiose statements about the films (or whatever) they love the most, instead offering measured praise in line with what their editors and readerships would expect. I’ve always written more personally for this blog sticking my neck out in elaborate commendation of creations I think don’t get the glory they deserve (such as Fire Emblem – Radiant Dawn). For years I’ve had no doubts about what my favourite game (The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time) and favourite book (Redwall) are but I’ve never had a really firm idea of what my favourite film is. Contenders have come and gone, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade played on constant repeat in my VCR growing up, all three The Lord of the Rings films have enjoyed periodic status as my favourite film, while animations like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Toy Story 3 have also laid a claim but nothing has ever really stuck.
Until recently that is. After being completely bowled over by both Coraline and The Secret of Kells I knew they had instantly become my two favourite films. The only question was which of them was better. For a long time I leaned more towards Coraline because of the enormous impact it had on the first watch but repeat viewings have caused some of that power to diminish slightly. The wonder of The Secret of Kells has not suffered any such effect. That being so I can finally confirm it to be my all-time favourite film.
We’re in seventh century Ireland and the Abbey of Kells (that’s two of my favourites set in an abbey, the other being Redwall). Brendan is a young novice who is always getting in trouble with his uncle, Abbot Cellach who is obsessed with building the Abbey walls as high and strong as possible to protect the inhabitants from Viking invaders. When Brother Aidan a famous inscriber comes to Kells with his white cat Pangur Ban seeking sanctuary he brings with him the Book of Iona, later known as the Book of Kells, a real religious artefact filled with the most incredible Christian iconography that is now on permanent display at the Trinity College Library in Dublin. The two form a strong friendship and Aidan encourages Brendan to contribute to the completion of the book so the boy sets out into the forest in search of berries to make ink. There he meets a playful forest fairy named Aisling.
What strikes you most about the film is its incredible stylised animation which is the most beautiful and inventive I have ever seen. The use of colour brings a mythic, fantastical Ireland to vivid life. The extraordinary backgrounds are sometimes minimalistic, sometimes loaded with minute detail, often created from patterns, impressionistic and pastel-shaded and ridiculously pretty. The direction of the animation is imaginative and playful. There are fun moments of split-screen in which we see Brendan running through different locations. Bees fly around in swirling formations. Wolves move in perfect unison. The unique shape of every falling snowflake is clearly visible. Every minute of the running time conjures some new delightful visual gimmick never allowing the look of the film to stray one iota below dazzling. If you have even the slightest appreciation for creative animation you should be absolutely stunned by literally every second of The Secret of Kells. That’s not an exaggeration. Even the prettiest animated films usually have moments or scenes that aren’t quite as eye-catching as others. Not so here, every frame looks amazing.
All the same the film would be nothing without a good story and while some people have remarked that a plot about the creation of a book is not the most exciting I beg to differ. Yes, the protagonist’s motivation is to help complete the book but there’s something very powerful about the faith he and Aidan put in the book’s significance. There’s a profound reverence that is actually quite stirring and the story of the book is a framing device that binds some wonderful scenes. There’s adventure when Brendan sets out into the forest. There’s peril when he is attacked by wolves. There’s comedy in the early goose-chasing scene. There’s tension in the impending Viking attack. There’s dispute in the Abbot’s resistance to Brendan and Aidan’s friendship. There’s haunting beauty in Aisling’s song to Pangur Ban. There are chills, there is horror, there is sadness and there is joy. And in the encounter with the monstrous Crom Cruach the film presents us with one of the outstanding moments in the history of animation, an inventive, scary and brilliant battle in which the hero fights with a stick of chalk, a scene that should never be forgotten.
Every aspect of the sound is also top-notch. The soundtrack is a mixture of uplifting Irish folk music, haunting melodies and powerful choirs. This is married to excellent vocal performances from the whole cast. Brendan Gleeson is the biggest name giving authority and sternness to Abbot Cellach in a nuanced performance that highlights the complex character’s depth in his obsession for security. Mick Lally makes brother Aidan into the most amiable old mentor you could hope for, frequently comical but providing notes of regret and sorrow when necessary. Evan McGuire absolutely shines as Brendan, filling his performance with boyish enthusiasm and wonder. However I’m giving top honours to Christen Mooney who weaves a whole mythology into Aisling in turns quirky, cross, playful, haughty, fearful and mysterious. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve all got awesome Irish accents too.
The Irish setting is the heart and soul of the film, the country’s rich mythology and history providing an ample backdrop for the story. It’s difficult to think of another country in which Christian and pagan themes can so naturally mix, the visuals are dominated by the greens of the Emerald Isle and the story hints at both the vibrancy of the people and the sorrow they have endured through history.
I’ve been waxing lyrical for over a thousand words now but you needn’t take my word for it. I showed this film to my good friend and discerning film critic Ryan and he absolutely loved it too, saying that it wasn’t just one of the best animated films but one of the best films he’d ever seen and he can be quite a harsh critic sometimes (he hated Hugo). He rightly pointed out that any single still from the film could be framed (I use the image of Brendan and Aisling looking at beetles for my desktop background) and the film inspired him to wrap all his Christmas presents in film stills. He also bought a copy on DVD and sent it as a Christmas present to his Irish family.
Whether you like animation or not this is a film that deserves to be seen and cherished by everybody. It’s educational about Irish history without ever forgetting to be fun. There’s a strong religious theme but it isn’t the least bit preachy. It is a film that celebrates the joy of art in every aspect of its creation, one that has the power to enrapture children and adults with its amusing slapstick, gorgeous colours, memorable characters and perfectly paced story. It is a remarkable creation that can be considered an ambassador for what can be achieved through the animation medium and an utterly wonderful film.
The Secret of Kells is one of those films that not everybody has seen but those that have seen it adore it. I’ve yet to come across a negative opinion of the film and I never expect to. If you don’t like The Secret of Kells it’s hard to believe you like films at all, or that you have a soul. It is, in my humble opinion, the best motion picture ever made.