The Secret of Kells
Outside the Abbey’s Fortified Walls, a World of Fairy Girls and Beasts
There is a lot to look at in “The Secret of Kells.” Nearly every frame of this 75-minute animated feature is dense with curlicued and cross-hatched patterns and figures. Your eye travels over Celtic crosses and through forest glades, studies architectural schematics and drinks in delicately washed landscapes. The human characters come in a variety of shapes and hues. Some are cute, some are sinister, some angular, some roly-poly. A few resemble science-fiction robots, while others look like pixies out of Japanese anime.
But you might take special notice of their hands, which are squared off and elongated in a way that suggests both crudeness and grace. These appendages are also large, appearing slightly out of proportion to the bodies, which makes sense given that the subject and method of this film is handicraft. “The Secret of Kells,” directed by Tomm Moore, concerns the Book of Kells, a medieval illuminated manuscript that ranks among the most important artifacts of Irish civilization. And it is only fitting that a movie concerned with the power and beauty of drawing — the almost sacred magic of color and line — should be so gorgeously and intricately drawn.
Mr. Moore’s film (the co-director is Nora Twomey and the screenwriter Fabrice Ziolkowski) has popped up as a somewhat surprising nominee for best animated feature at this year’s Oscars, rounding out a gratifyingly diverse field. The flat, stylized drawings in “The Secret of Kells” complement the 3-D flights of “Coraline” and “Up,” the stop-motion inventions of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and the old-school cel compositions of “The Princess and the Frog,” and together the five movies testify to the robustness and visual variety of animation today.
Thematically they are more of a piece. Cartoons in this country tend to be for and about children, and Mr. Moore’s tale of a young novice learning to follow his dreams and stand up for what’s right fits comfortably into the Hollywood mainstream.
The boy’s name is Brendan (his voice is provided by Evan McGuire), and he lives at Kells, an abbey overseen by his stern, anxious uncle Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), who is preoccupied with defending his charges from Viking invaders. Cellach forbids his nephew from traveling outside the abbey’s heavily (and as it turns out, inadequately) fortified walls, and allows his fear to stifle any expression of lightness or joy.
One day a monk named Aidan (Mick Lally) shows up, a refugee from the island of Iona, bringing with him an incomplete manuscript that he hopes to finish. Brendan, defying his uncle, assists this visitor, who sends the boy out into the forest to collect berries for ink. There, he encounters a winsome fairy girl named Aisling (Christen Mooney) and a ferocious subterranean beast, both of them reminders of an older, pagan world surviving alongside and underneath the Christianity of Brendan’s uncle and his colleagues.
A gentle spirit of syncretism suffuses “The Secret of Kells,” which mixes folklore and history without too much piety or violence. The exact nature of the manuscript — the real Book of Kells contains the four gospels of the New Testament — is left vague. And the brutality of the faceless, relentless marauders from the north is suggested rather than graphically shown, so that the cruelty is likely to sail over the heads of very young children while giving older ones a not-too-upsetting thrill of danger.
Brendan’s busy adventures load the film with a bit too much narrative for its brief running time, but the sometimes hectic plot ultimately serves as scaffolding for Mr. Moore’s extraordinary visual brio. Using the vivid colors and delicate lineations of the Book of Kells for inspiration, he establishes a surprising and completely persuasive link between the ancient art of manuscript illumination and the modern practice of animation. Like the crystal lens that is a crucial element of Aidan’s craft — an enchanted eye that refracts and renews his, and then Brendan’s, perception — “The Secret of Kells” discloses strange new vistas that nonetheless seem to have existed since ancient times.
THE SECRET OF KELLS
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Directed by Tomm Moore; co-directed by Nora Twomey; written by Fabrice Ziolkowski; character design by Mr. Moore and Barry Reynolds; edited by Fabienne Alvarez-Giro; music by Bruco Coulais; art director, Ross Stewart; produced by Ivan Rouveure; released by GKIDS. At the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH THE VOICES OF: Evan McGuire (Brendan), Mick Lally (Brother Aidan), Christen Mooney (Aisling), Brendan Gleeson (Abbot Cellach), Liam Hourican (Brother Tang/Leonardo), Paul Tylak (Brother Assoua), Michael McGrath (Adult Brendan) and Paul Young (Brother Square).