BRENDAN AND THE SECRET OF KELLS Review
Posted by Todd Brown at 10:31am.
If you’re thinking to yourself that basing a children’s film around the creation of a famously illustrated Bible is an odd thing to do, well, you’re mostly right. It is kind of odd. And in lesser hands than director Tomm Moore and co-director Nora Twohey’s, doing so very likely would have resulted in a barely watchable history lesson. But by focusing less on the book - which, conspicuously, is never referred to as being a Bible within the body of the film - and more on the child who would eventually complete the years of labor that went into its creation, Moore and Twohey have instead created a charming, gorgeously realized fable about the power of imagination and art to thrive even in the most hostile times.
Young Brendan is an orphan living within the Abbey of Kells, a middle ages Irish monastery populated by monks whose lives are meant to be dedicated to the preservation and duplication - by hand - of books containing the whole of human knowledge at the time. Preserving knowledge is an important task at the best of times and particularly so at this particular age, a time when Viking hordes were storming the shores of Ireland and laying waste to whatever they came across. But, more than mere copyists, the monks of the Abbey were artists, men known as Illuminators thanks to their unique ability to create elaborate calligraphies and illustrations within the text to carry the meaning even to those who could not read. Brendan’s childhood was one surrounded by myth and story and art, a nearly ideal environment for a child with a curious mind and a bit of skill with a quill.
Unfortunately, Brendan’s childhood was also spent surrounded by one enormous wall. The Abbot of Kells, you see, terrified of the oncoming Viking raiders, has diverted virtually all of the Abbey’s resources away from the art that was supposedly their primary occupation and put them, insteaed, into fortifying the Abbey against future invasion. Though well meaning the Abbot verges on obsessive when it comes to the completion of his wall and young Brendan, alas, has never been allowed to set foot outside of its boundaries.
Life for Brendan changes dramatically with the arrival of Brother Aidan, a living legend among Illuminators, widely considered to be the very finest artist of his generation and the man currently in charge of work on the fabled Book of Iona - a book now roughly two hundred years in the making, a book supposedly so beautiful that it possesses nearly supernatural power. Iona sacked by raiders, Aidan has now brought his work with him to Kells and it takes mere moments for him to recognize a kindred spirit in Brendan and to take the boy under his wing. Lesson one? You will learn more from a day spent in the forest than from a lifetime behind walls and so Brendan is sent out into the woods - without the Abbot’s knowledge or consent - to find the oak berries that Aidan needs to create his inks. It is a dangerous, wild place, but also a beautiful one - a place that Brendan navigates only with the help of a forest spirit he meets and befriends there ...
Immediately engaging and gorgeously realized, Brendan and the Secret of Kells avoids the limitations of a ‘historical’ movie, instead casting itself as a coming of age adventure, with its young hero forced to make his first steps on his own, making his own decisions about right and wrong and finding the strength in himself to face up to his fears and foes both magical and frighteningly real. It is a film about being bold enough to create and the fallacy of simply trying to preserve.
The debut feature from Irish animator Tomm Moore - the film also had significant backing from France and Belgium - immediately establishes Moore as an absolute master of his craft - a story teller and visual artist who absolutely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as masters such as Michel Ocelot and Sylvain Chomet. His world is richly detailed and strikingly unique, folding traditionally Irish influences into a riot of color and detail that dazzle the eyes while the deceptively simple story goes to work on more subtle levels. His characters are just as richly detailed as his visuals, the messages simple and universal. This is no less than the arrival of a major new talent.