Although some have been calling Pixar’s Brave a step-down for the animation giants, I had a great time with it. This was due in large part to its exquisite visuals and its lush Scottish setting, filled with magic and wild natural dangers. Today’s Netflix Instant pic is also an animated family film about a child’s coming of age. Instead of Scotland it’s set in Ireland, and the restless young Merida is replaced by restless young Brendan. If you thought Brave was too traditional, you will have no such complaints with The Secret of Kells. Itis an exquisitely odd children’s film.
History and legend tell us that the real Book of Kells was transcribed sometime in 800 A.D. An illuminated Latin manuscript that collected together the four New Testament gospels, the book also included passages pulled from an earlier version of scripture known as the Vetus Latina.
The primary achievement of the work, which now resides at Trinity College in Dublin, is that it’s a masterpiece of calligraphy and features one of the finest existing examples of the Celtic tradition of Insular Art. Started on the isle of Iona, and possibly passing through three more transcribers before it was finished, The Book of Kells and it’s creation are at the very heart of Secret.
Although it takes a little while to get started, The Secret of Kells actually manages to take the esoteric premise and spin it in a rousing family adventure. A young boy named Brendan is watched over by the monks at a monastery surrounded by an old Irish forest. Here, the Abbot Cellach is building a wall to defend against the threat of Vikings. When Brother Aiden arrives at Kells, Brendan is instantly fascinated by the manuscript he carries and the art-form he uses to pen its pages.
When Aiden sends Brendan out into the forest to gather berries to mix a green ink, he’s attacked by wolves and rescued by a wispy shade of a girl named Aisling, in whose veins runs faery blood. Reminiscent of the structure of Disney’s The Sword and the Stone, Brendan learns the artistry of calligraphy in the scriptorium with Aiden at the same time as he’s exploring the mysteries of the forest with Aisling, who treats him as a welcome playmate within the lonely wood.
There are three distinct segments to Kells, each defined by setting. Early on there is the dark gloom of the monastery where Cellach worries and frets over invasion. When Aiden shows up, we are introduced to the warm, welcome candle-lit glow of the scriptorium where the wonders of the book literally pull from the page and dance dizzily in front of Brendan. More fearsome and beautiful than the others is Aisling’s wilderness, evoked by the dark charcoal tones of abandoned temples and dank caverns or in the deep emerald gleam of enormous ancient trees that shelter hundreds of squawking birds. When the film’s inevitable climax arrives, these three universes intersect with Brendan.
Using an animation form that trades up naturalism for a kind of ornamental flowing tapestry, Kells has a rhythm and tone that can be downright hypnotic and enchanting. Embracing the insular forms of celtic interlacing, and evoking the interlocking relationship of man, nature and the heavens, the animators have moved beyond trying to replicate realism and instead capture even the most frantic of actions scenes using symbolic and stylized representations.
The voice actors deliver richness and personality to straight-forward dialogue and Mick Lalley and Brendan Gleeson are both terrific as two very different monks. Having actual children voice Brendan and Aisling was the right choice, and you can almost hear the girlish glee in Aisling’s delight every time Brendan returns to her forest.
The adventure sequences are magnificently done and rely upon the unusual visual style to deliver otherworldly monstrosities like the dark god Krom’s underwater dwelling or exaggerations of real world threat, like the broad-shouldered Vikings who storm across Ireland like The Last Unicorn’s Red Bull.
This is a family film that can be appreciated on the level of an entertaining adventure, and its final third posesses the kind of harrowing content (not too adult) that made films like Secret of Nimh classic.However, that other level, that presents the authenticity of a faded culture bright and beaming off the pages of Aiden’s coveted book, is here too and it’s the one young audiences may find later, after years of repeated viewing. And with The Secret of Kells, I don’t think repeated viewing is going to be much of a chore.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92% fresh