The Secret of Kells, a feature-length animated film about a the nephew of a monk learning the art of illuminated manuscripts during the era of Viking invasions, was way too scary for my two kids. The KidFilm program says six and up, and they are probably right. I shut off the movie before the two and four-year-olds got too scared and ruined a good night’s sleep. The movie, however, was phenomenal. What’s lost in the proliferation of digital animation is the art of animation as hand-craft – the painterliness of animation. There are some old Disney films that really exploited the beauty of this form (I’m thinking of The Fox and the Hound), where the backgrounds and scenery are more than just a representation of the film’s world, but a play of abstracts that profoundly and delightfully affect mood and tone. The Secret of Kells is about the art of illuminated manuscripts, and the very fabric of the movie is enveloped in this style.
Brendan is a young orphan who is sent to live with his uncle, an abbot of a monastery. The abbot is obsessed with building a wall to fortify the monastery against the Viking invasions. Brendan is more interested in the work of the brothers who are illuminating the sacred scriptures. When Ireland’s most famous master illuminator arrives, Brendan becomes his pupil against his uncle’s will. As the abbot prepares to guard the future of the monastery’s physical survival, Brenden becomes the only hope for the survival of the art of illumination.
Brendan’s apprenticeship becomes a quest and it takes him into fantastical illustrated worlds of dark forces, as he searches for a secret crystal that is the aid of the artist. The story is exciting and compelling, but it is the sheer beauty and originality of the animation that makes The Secret of Kells such an engrossing watch. Even if you don’t have kids, this is probably one the best films playing in local theaters this weekend.