I’ve lived through many ages. I’ve seen suffering in the darkness. Yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the book. The book that turns darkness into light.
There are some really terrible childrens’ movies being made these days. Then there are those that transcend their own genre and become, in my humble opinion, true and utter masterpieces. Then there are those children movies that are flawed but still graceful and beautiful and are films I would still be proud to show my children to introduce them to the world of great cinema. The Secret of Kells is the latter.
In 9th Century Ireland, young monk-in-training Brendan (Evan McGuire) is raised by an array of kind monks who wish to illustrate beautiful spiritual texts. His uncle, Abbot Celach is only concerned with finishing the enormous wall he has constructed around the village of Kells to protect them from the viscous Vikings coming from the north. When the well-renown monk Aidan (Mick Lally) flees to Kells after his home of Iona was attacked, he shares with Brendan his life-long task: to protect and complete the beautiful, mystical book that would bring light to their people. Leaving home for the first time, Brendon must step into the forest to gather the items needed to complete the book and to bring hope to those he cares about.
What’s actually kind of brilliant about the movie is that there really is a Book of Kells. It’s considered one of the great treasures of Ireland (and unlike so many historical texts, it still exists and is kept in Dublin). It really was brought from the island of Iona when the vikings attacked and was finished and kept at the Abbey of Kells for centuries. After watching the film, I researched a little and discovered photos of some of the book’s pages. It’s a really beautiful piece of history and I’m not at all surprised writers Tomm Moore (who also directed) and Fabrice Ziolkowski were inspired by it. We are shown a few pages of the finished text in the movie (although we don’t see enough, in my humble opinion) and they represent the real book well.
Speaking of beautiful, this movie is visually stunning. I can’t say enough about how appealing the art style is. You can tell so much heart and passion went into this movie. There is great juxtaposition between the natural elegance of Ireland and the faceless, shadowed figures of the northern invaders. You can tell they wanted both the setting and the overall art of the movie to live up to the beauty of the book that inspired this film. It really feels like a Western answer to the gorgeous, family-friendly works of Miyazaki.
There are two real stars to this movie and they’re the youngest actors in the cast. The first is McGuire as young Brendan. More than anything, Brendan wants to do right by those around him. He is very sweet and perhaps a little naive, but also very loyal to those he loves. The second is Christen Mooney, who plays Aisling, the magical creature of the forest who shifts between wolf and little girl forms. While she looks and acts like a wide-eyed child, you get the idea that Aisling is an ancient spirit. Mooney does an incredible job balancing that sense of power and the personality of a little girl (a spunky, outgoing little girl at that). She also has a lovely singing voice (the song she sings is haunting and really sticks with you). While suspicious and cold to Brendan at first, Aisling agrees to help him find some special berries needed for ink when she discovers that they are both orphans. By the time Brendan brings the berries back to Kells, he and Aisling are fast friends. So much of the film depends on the chemistry between the two characters and that chemistry is perfect. Even in this fantastic, mystical setting, Aisling and Brendan are just two kids who become very good friends. The fact that they meet in such a beautiful, luscious forest just makes their scenes together that much more special.
Lally is fantastic as Aiden, the Ionan monk that teaches Brendan the art of illustration. Aiden is energetic, generous and more than a little sly. He also has a cat named Pangerbon, who quickly placed on my list of favorite non-speaking animals in movies (the scene where Pangerbon and Aisling help Brendan escape his room is one of my favorite parts of the whole movie). Brendan Gleeson, best known to American audiences as Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter movies, plays the Abbot, who is fixated on completing the wall to protect the community from the vikings. Unlike most antagonists in childrens’ films, the Abbot isn’t evil, nor is he necessarily selfish, but he is very self-righteous and really believes without a shadow of a doubt that all that matters is the wall. He sacrifices everything (even his relationship with his nephew) to built the wall. When Aiden tells Brandon that his uncle once understood the importance of the books created by the abbots, I had to wonder what changed him so drastically. My suspicion is that it has something to do with the death of Brendan’s parents, but I was disappointed it wasn’t revealed. Either way, Gleeson’s commanding voice works well with the character.
The last 15 minutes of the film were really the weakest part. It’s not that I disliked what happened; it gets dark with the oncoming violence, but is ultimately bittersweet and that’s not a bad thing. What I didn’t like was how abruptly it ends. After the climax of violence, there is only maybe five, ten minutes at most left in the movie and it feels rushed. I was expecting more and when the credits started rolling, it was a disappointment. There were one too many questions not yet answered. I also wish we could have seen more of the book itself. I realize the filmmakers were trying to build intrigue, but I still wanted to see more of what amazed the characters so much.
Even with a less than perfect ending, Secret of Kells is one of my favorite films of the year so far. The animation in itself is praise-worthy, but the characters are a delight in themselves. And as a Catholic, I was pleased that the film was able to mix mysticism with Catholicism without them being at odds with each other. I look forward to more great work from Mr. Moore and his team.
Overall: While it slips towards the end, The Secret of Kells is a visual treat for the young and old and overall enchanting.
3 1/2 out of 5 stars