Faith, Fairies, And The Forgotten Art Of Animation: The Secret Of Kells

Theatrical promotion poster. Copyright © 2009 by Cartoon Saloon.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you all!  To properly celebrate, here’s a review of a modern Irish film that’s sure to delight!

The Books of Kells is one of the most famous illuminated manuscripts, a collection of the four Gospels of the New Testament written and illustrated by Irish monks during the Early Middle Ages.  It is currently on display at the Old Library at Trinity College in Dublin, which I got to see for myself back in the summer of 2008.

In 2009, Cartoon Saloon released an animated film that dramatized the production of this highly-treasured book at the Berlin International Film Festival, entitled The Secret of Kells. And let me tell you, dear readers, that having seen both this film and the original manuscript (under its protective casing, of course), I can tell you that both are works of art that simply have to be seen to be believed.

The Story

Book of Kells, Folio 34r, Chi Rho Monogram.

For a film that is seventy-five minutes long, the story has to be fairly simple.  It is essentially a highly imaginative dramatization of the era in which the Book of Kells was produced.  Brendan, a young boy at the Abbey of Kells, does what he can to help Brother Aiden of Iona illustrate the Book while trying to please his uncle, the Abbot.  Along the way, he makes a friend out of a fairy girl named Aisling and Aiden’s cat, Pangur Bán.  However, they must also prepare for an attack by the barbaric Vikings, who destroy everything in their path, and if the book is not finished and preserved, all hope for the future of civilization will be lost.

The Cast

With the exception of Brother Aidan–who might be based on the real-life St. Aidan of Lindisfarne–the majority of characters are purely original.  Brendan is your typical kid trying to get by in a world of serious adults, which is made no easier by the fact that he is a ward of his grim uncle, the Abbot of Kells.  Aisling the fairy provides a light and breezy contrast, a perky girl who takes a liking to Brendan and shows him the richness of nature while bouncing across the screen like a mad squirrel.  Aidan himself fulfills the role of being a kindly old mentor and role model for Brendan, while his cat Pangur Bán acts as the boy’s loyal companion for most of the film, even when facing down vicious wolves and other kinds of danger.

That said, I did find the Viking invaders and the monstrous Crom Cruach to be a little incomprehensible, but I suppose that was deliberate, since they’re meant to be the forces of darkness that threaten to destroy the light contained in the holy book at the Abbey.  There’s also the fact that two of the monks at Kells speak with exaggerated Italian and Jamaican accents (just take my word for it), but again, I’m sure this was meant for the sake of comedy and not just a glaring historical error.

The Animation

Where do I begin?

Brendan and Aisling at the Forest. Copyright © 2009 by Cartoon Saloon.

It’s fantastic.  It never stops moving and you can’t stop watching, not even for a second, because you might miss something that will take your breath away.  It’s an obvious homage to the illustration style found in the very Book of Kells, only with a more modern feel.  The sequences inside the forest are some of the best, in my opinion, given how creatures like Aisling and Pangur Bán develop these beautiful flowing lines when in motion.  And anyone who sees this film can’t help but sink into the mystery and wonder that the illustrations of the Book exude, featuring designs tucked inside of designs with such intricacy that it leaves you marveling that anything so richly detailed could be so ancient–not to mention, deeply respectful of the ability of the Irish monks who lovingly labored on it for a few centuries.

Aisling and Brendan on a page of the Book of Kells. Copyright © 2009 by Cartoon Saloon.

Final Verdict

This film is a treasure for so many reasons.  It’s a traditionally animated film, yet its style is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  In a way, it’s much like the actual Book that inspired it: telling a familiar story, but illustrating it in such a way that it becomes its own invaluable work of art.

Bibliography: The Secret of Kells.  Directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey.  Produced by Paul Young, Didier Brunner, and Vivian Van Fleteren.  Written by Fabrice Zilolkowski.  Story by Tomm Moore.  Perf. Brendan Gleeson, Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, and Mick Lally.  Cartoon Saloon, 2009.


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