The Secret of Kells
Directed by Tomm Moore. Voices of Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, Mick Lally, Brendan Gleeson. PG cert, gen release, 75 min
HMM? CARTOON Saloon, an animation house based in Kilkenny, has put together a feature based around the creation of The Book of Kells. The prospect is not altogether an enticing one. One imagines a soberly narrated, drably animated information film, suitable for tourists queuing up at The Kells Experience: “Here we see the monks boiling up beetroot to prepare the cochineal dye.” And so forth.
Happily, The Secret of Kells is not like that at all. Director Tomm Moore and his talented team – hunch-shouldered in darkness, one imagines, like those ninth-century monks – have assiduously avoided lazy options to deliver an entity of considerable beauty and originality.
Fans of Genndy Tartakovsky, the Russian animator of classic series such as Samurai Jack and Dexter’s Laboratory , will admire the way Moore bends the Russian’s key techniques (bold lines, eccentric camera angles) to his own, very different ends. Wolves are rendered as jagged flashes. The Vikings become looming tree- people. Equally impressive are the flat, painterly backgrounds, which nod towards the perspective-free world of pre-Renaissance art.
The script is not quite as impressive as the visuals. Almost entirely abandoning any reference to Christianity for nods towards other, more ancient myths, the film follow young Brendan (nicely voiced by Evan McGuire) as he falls out with his uncle (Brendan Gleeson), a stern Abbot, and makes friends with another, more eccentric monk named Aidan (Mick Lally).
Inspired by Brother Aidan’s talent for illumination, Brendan gets drawn into the quest for a magic jewel and, in his wanderings, encounters various monsters, sinister Norsemen and a sort of benevolent female wolf-spirit.
The story does have a neat arc and the voice-work is first rate, but the thinly drawn characters are sometimes upstaged by the bold images and by the fine, insistent music from Kíla and Bruno Coulais. Moreover, the desire to pack in so much research seems to have occasionally overpowered the need to create a clean narrative line.
These are quibbles. The Secret of Kells remains a surprising piece of work that should appeal to smart children and open-minded adults. Chemically befuddled students may enjoy it even more.