Review: The Secret of Kells
Brendan and master Aidan.
The Secret of Kells is the tale of an Irish town’s fight for survival against the relentless tide of Viking invasion. At stake are not only the integrity of the settlement and the lives of its people, but more importantly, its way of life and its culture. The Vikings are not just a political and military force, they are a faceless monster intent on devouring Ireland and all things Irish. There are two schools of thought on how best to deal with the threat of the norsemen. The abbott, the ostensible leader of the town, insists that a wall must be built to keep the invaders out. The monks under his charge say that this is a futile gesture, and the only thing which can truly defeat the Vikings is time. The best course, they say, is to flee before the onslaught and ensure that the knowledge in their care is kept safe. Brendan, the film’s young hero, must choose between the two differing approaches and grow within the bounds of his decision. In charting Brendan’s progress, “Kells” mirrors traditional heroic folklore, but it does so with a deep undercurrent of pertinent themes. The film can be appreciated for its surface story and also for the ideas which bubble beneath. Thanks to this dichotomy and to the rich visual presentation, The Secret of Kells deserves a much broader audience than it will likely receive.
In its use of indigenous folk tales and rustic settings, “Kells” is reminiscent of the work of the great Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki, the man who gave us My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and the Academy Award winning Spirited Away. As in Miyazaki’s films, “Kells” is more reliant on the rhythms of folklore than it is the rote storytelling of modern Hollywood. Brendan’s journey from inquisitive boy to accomplished scholar features side trips into the world of faerie, and a battle with a monster more ancient and terrifying than the approaching Scandinavians. Much of the boy’s growth occurs metaphysically in a way which runs contrary to the world of the abbott and his wall. The arc of Brendan’s tale also owes much to the Hero’s Journey outlined by the famed mythology expert, Joseph Campbell. The path which the protagonist walks is a well-worn one, trod also by the the great heroes of literature who preceded him. But “Kells” does not borrow lightly from myth and folk tale, and its story is not a simplistic one. For instance, there is an unspoken irony in the fact that Brendan receives aid from the world of faerie since the knowledge he is seeking to preserve will, in time, disallow the existence of faeries. For those with a discerning eye, the film runs deeper than is implied by its surface veneer. On the other hand, The Secret of Kells, with its folkloric tone, connects with the audience on a primal level -- the same level upon which we once responded (or to continue to respond) to a well-told bed-time story.
The deceptive simplicity in the narrative presentation is mirrored wonderfully in “Kells’” brilliant art direction, A conscious choice has been made here to avoid the dimensionality found in most of the Disney features. A deliberately flat style has been embraced, and it not only suits the material, it constitutes a refreshing change of pace. For obvious reasons, the characters look very much like the people portrayed in illuminated manuscripts. Despite this fact, the artists have managed some animation which can stand with anything found in more conventionally art directed features. In particular, Aidan the master illuminator, and Aisling the faerie girl have been brought to life with consummate skill. The backgrounds these characters inhabit are so rich in detail that they are often used to aid in furthering the story, or in transitioning between scenes. The Secret of Kells feels designed to function exactly as it does, and that is a thing which movies rarely accomplish. In fact, “Kells” uses the medium of the animated cartoon better than any other film in recent memory.
The Secret of Kells is a fine film with a noble theme. The notion that preserving and disseminating knowledge are the best safeguards against evil is a welcome one in a time where rational thought seems to be losing its value. ASIFA was right to nominate “Kells” for Best Animated Feature, and the film deserves to be seen by as many people as it can reach.