Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Seen It: The Secret of Kells (2009)

While I vaguely recall The Secret of Kells (2009) having a brief run at my local art film theater, I regrettably never had the chance to see it on the big screen. Like so many movies that after seeing the trailer I eventually forget having had a desire to see it, my piqued interest in Kells was eventually lost to the sands of time. Fortunately for those of us with poor memories, Netflix continues to be the gift that keeps on giving. I came across the title as a "Top Picks For You" on the first day of Presidents Week Recess and began my Monday with it, happy to discuss what tremendous treasure it is.

The rarest of all animated movies (independent, multinational financing, hand drawn, and without over-the-top pop music production numbers), The Secret of Kells (2009) is directed by Tomm Moore, who also receives a story credit, from a screenplay by Fabrice Ziolkowski. Based on the story of the origin of the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament located in Dublin, Ireland, the film also draws upon Celtic mythology.

The story, with help from Netflix, is simple: "When Vikings attack an Irish abbey, the monks must stop work on the legendary Book of Kells and protect their home. So Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), the 12-year-old nephew of Abbott Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), is tasked by visiting "illuminater" Brother Aidan (Mick Lally) with assisting in the completion of the magnificent work. With Brother Aidan's cat, Pangur Bán, as a partner in crime, Brendan's joins forces with Aisling (Christen Mooney), a fairy living in the woods outside of Kells. Rest assured that the execution of the director and animators assures that the story does not play out in an obvious a manner as the brief synopsis suggests.

Brendan and Aisling.
Though the easiest way of singing the praises of any animated film NOT by Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks is by contrasting it with the deficiencies of those same company's films, that would only serve to focus on the negatives of the latter rather then the fabulous positives of the former.
  • The voice cast is excellent, and to my ear, comprised of relative unknowns, the most recognizable voice being that of actor being Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart and the Harry Potter films among others) who plays Abbot Cellach.
  • The traditional (really "old fashioned" nowadays) animation is gorgeous yet somehow "edgy." When the opportunity to go the "big battle" route with the visual storytelling, the choice is made to get metaphorical (or metaphysical). 
  • The romance is real. Of course the romance here is between man and the written word. Though the story and its religious trappings intimates the Word (capitalization intentional), much of the dialogue suggests the world of reading, writing and imagination. When it comes to books, Kells reminds us to "the cover is not the real treasure... open it." The movies core is developed around the completion and saving of "the most incredible book in the whole world capable of turning darkness into light."
If it reads as if the superlatives used here are over the top, you're reading correctly. Tonally, The Secret of Kells owes much more to the works of quiet, magic of Hayao Miyazaka (think Spirited Away)  than with the more common loud and garish assembly line animated movies of recent years. For yours truly, that is more than enough reason to recommend checking it out. My only regret is not having taken the opportunity to support this time of animation/storytelling when it was given its brief theatrical release.

Pangur Bán, Brendan and Brother Aidan in the scriptorium.

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