“The Secret of Kells” is a movie about the decoration—more specifically, but less helpfully, the illumination—of a book. It says little about the content of the book; perhaps we, the viewers are meant to assume that its contents must be sufficiently importantly to be illuminated, or perhaps the director finds the content irrelevant, or uninteresting. I’d go with the latter, based on the film they’ve made: “The Secret of Kells” is a beautifully decorated movie, but there’s not much content behind the animation.
The setting is 9th century Ireland. The Celtic/Irish people of the land are harrowed and haunted by Vikings; portrayed ingenuously as shadows with red eyes and horns; they look like demons. At the Abbey of Kells, Abbot Cellach is obsessed with constructing a wall strong enough to keep the Vikings at bay. “They will admire the strength of our faith when they see the strength of our wall,” he tells another monk. His nephew is the curious and plucky Brendan who is more interested in the art of illumination (decorating pages of books) than the art of wall construction. When famous illuminator Brother Aidan(who looks strangely like Willie Nelson) escapes the Viking attack on nearby Iona and flees to Kells, he brings the precious Book of Iona with him. Now Brendan has just the impetus he needs to disobey his strict uncle, venture past the grand wall into the forest and collect berries that can be made into dye.
He meets a fairy named Aisling there, and has a confrontation with the pagan god Crom Cruach. His uncle locks him up in a tower, and a cat named Panger Ban helps him get free.
All of this is beautifully, distinctly illustrated by the folks at Cartoon Saloon. Hardly a frame isn’t worth notice and admiration; clearly they are taking their cues from illumination itself, which never leaves a space empty that could be filled with a doodad or curlicue. If you are a parent, you will probably enjoy this movie more than your kids, as your eyes will welcome the artistic and refreshing animation while they are less than captivated by the story.
Which goes nowhere. Or more accurately, into a hole it never climbs out of. The movie builds, appealingly, through its first two acts into an absolute failure of a third act. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say some very scary, not-appropriate-for-toddlers things happen, and then it slips into montage, and then wraps up with a puzzlingly happy ending.
There is a real Book of Kells; it is on display at the Trinity College Library in Dublin. It is absolutely stunning; a national treasure and a real work of art. If you google “Book of Kells,” you’ll find pictures of it. They’re worth spending some time with. So’s this movie. But unlike that famous book, the story doesn’t measure up to the pictures that illustrate – or illuminate – it.
Recommended if you love Celtic folklore, illustration, and that whole fairy/celtic knot/Ren Fayre style.
Not Recommended if you’re more interested in the story itself than in the way it’s told