(2009)3.5Nathan SouthernTomm Moore's unusual animated feature The Secret of Kells tells the fanciful story of a carrot-topped orphan boy named Brendan (Evan McGuire), who is growing up in some undefined age as the young apprentice in a monastic community. A broad forest surrounds the fortress-like walls of the community, rife not only with the terror of unfamiliarity, but a horrifying creature that could pose a grave threat to the lad. The abbot of the community -- a tall, staunch, and humorless fellow who serves as the boy's guardian -- expressly forbids him from venturing out into the unknown. The abbot, it seems, is preoccupied with fortifying the monastery walls against an incoming onslaught of bloodthirsty Viking marauders. Meanwhile, elements of the outside world slip into the monastery, including a wizened older monk who involves the boy in the compilation of the Book of Kells -- a book that will ultimately require the tyke to venture into the forest and retrieve precious items, much to the abbot's horror.
Most young viewers, who are growing up in an age of CG animation, will never have seen a feature anything like this. Visually, this hand-drawn film hearkens back to influences of decades prior (beginning in the 1940s), such as the periods when animators including John Hubley, Walt Disney, and (much later on) Raoul Servais began experimenting with chalky animated overlays, animated abstractions, and geometric characters. But none of those predecessors traveled this far; from first frame to last -- as we glimpse one splayed-out, visually moribund tableaux after another, rich with so many details that it's impossible to take everything in, and see characters morphing into abstract shapes and back again -- we're sensorially dazzled. How could we not be? To think that a team of illustrators and animators created everything here, painstakingly drawn by hand, blows one's mind. On an aesthetic level, the film, which teeters on the edge of indescribability, represents an awe-inspiring achievement, and it must have taken years to complete.
Narratively, though, the movie poses some problems. Moore and his team set up the tale and its central conflicts beautifully -- we understand with complete clarity the elements that conspire to keep Brendan inside of the monastery walls and away from the forest, and the curiosity that beckons the child to set out on an exploratory journey. Once that journey begins, we can also follow, with reasonable clarity, what is happening to Brendan at any given moment. But once the elder monk slips into the picture, the movie falters. Moore and his collaborators fail to help the audience understand exactly what the Book of Kells entails and what Brendan could potentially contribute to it; if we're going to vie for the lad, we should have a tighter grip on this.
That narrative omission creates another problem in the film. The actual Book of Kells is a deeply Catholic text, a richly illustrated illumination of the four Christian gospels, regarded as Ireland's national treasure. Moore and his team doubtless wanted to avoid the proselytizing that would accompany the onscreen acknowledgement of these contents. But because the contents are never stated forthright, one unfamiliar with this history could easily misinterpret the text as a book of old-world pagan magic, particularly given the mystical presentation of the book onscreen. (The movie's conveyance of the Catholic abbot as a self-deluded, hateful, and narrow-minded opponent of Brendan's involvement with the text doesn't help either.) Equally strange is the inclusion of a young and adorable girl named Aisling, whom Brendan befriends in the forest. She turns into a sort of New Age spirit guide, capable of morphing into graceful animals and (in one case) influencing an animal's spirit to do her bidding. This is very charming and whimsical, of course, but it also contributes to the film's somewhat bizarre amalgam of neo-pagan mysticism and Catholic iconography/history, making the movie, in the final analysis, seem philosophically and spiritually muddled. Fortunately, these elements do little to detract from the sheer beauty of the viewing experience.
Follow 12-year-old Brendan (voice of Evan McGuire) as he battles Vikings and confronts an ancient serpent god on a mission to locate a legendary crystal and complete the mythical Book of Kells. Brendan lives in a heavily fortified medieval outpost known as the Abbey of Kells, where the ongoing threat of Viking raids causes the peaceful monks to live in a state of constant fear. Along with his uncle, Abbot Cellach, Brendan labors to fortify the abbey walls daily so his people will be protected from invading forces. When the mysterious Brother Aidan arrives at the abbey carrying an unfinished tome filled mystical secrets, Brendan becomes illuminated, and his dormant talents are awakened. The book must be finished, but accomplishing that mission will be no simple task. As the Vikings close in, Brendan ventures into the surrounding forest and prepares to confront his darkest fears. Accompanying him on his dangerous mission is Aisling, a half-wolf/half-human fairy whose powers will help to guide Brendan through this enchanting yet dangerous new world.