Boy saves medieval masterpiece in lovely, animated ‘Secret of Kells’
A boy on a heroic quest is not an unusual subject for an animated family film. But there’s an extra layer of intrigue when the quest involves creating and preserving one of the most beautiful pieces of artwork in human history. When Irish animator Tomm Moore set out to make his first feature, he decided to delve into his own Celtic heritage for inspiration; the result is the lovely and poetic The Secret Of Kells, which imagines the story of a boy in a medieval monastery who helps to save the gorgeous 9th Century illuminated manuscript known to history as “The Book of Kells.”
There’s a wonderful symbiosis in Moore using hand-drawn cel animation to replicate the craftsmanship of medieval books painstakingly illuminated by hand. (It took Moore and co-director Nora Twomey five years to complete the film in this old-fashioned, non-CGI manner.) Which is not to say that Moore’s film is merely an animated reproduction of the images from the “Kells.” Yes, Moore’s often ravishing artwork is inspired by the intricate patterns, vivid colors, and decorative details of Celtic design. But Moore’s own highly stylized figure drawings and sense of whimsy convey an original story as the young hero awakens to the magic of art and the wonders of nature.
Brendan (voice of Evan McGuire) is a typically spunky and curious lad who lives in a monastery, the Abbey of Kells. His uncle, the Abbot (voice of Brendan Gleeson) is a loving but stern caretaker who funnels all the energy and resources of the abbey into fortifying a gigantic stone wall around the grounds; barbarian Norsemen from across the sea are wreaking havoc and destruction throughout the land. The monks of the abbey scriptorium complain they are too busy wall-building to practice their craft, while Brendan has never even seen the world outside the wall.
But things change when wily old artisan, Brother Aiden (Mick Lally), from the abbey of Iona, arrives at Kells. When the Norsemen overran Iona, Aiden (fabled as “the perfect illuminator”) escaped with his life’s work, a marvelous book that will “turn darkness into light.” Young Brendan is smitten with the gorgeous book and determines to help the old illuminator complete his masterwork.
Brendan disobeys his uncle to sneak outside the walls and into the forest, in search of a certain berry that produces the most dazzling shade of green. There, the boy (and his trusty cat, a charming touch) meet Aisling (Christen Mooney), a girl of the Fae. She introduces Brendan to the beauty and joy of the natural world, which inspires him later, when he starts adding his own illustrations to Aiden’s book. But in the forest, he also discovers the sleeping giant of fear and oppression, the forces of darkness that his precious book will help to repel.
In the spirit of the original “Book of Kells,” Moore’s images have a flat, decorative look. Layers of arching blue seas have a Japanese woodblock quality; stylized flowers and plants float in the painterly green watercolor wash of the forest scenes; intricate linear patterns often draw themselves around the border of the screen. The scary Viking invaders are towering, devil-horned black shadows. When they attack, Moore’ palette is reduced to black and white, ashy grey, and the red of blood and fire.
In one virtuoso scene, possibly a dream (in Moore’s universe, dreams, reality, and fairy magic are as deliciously intertwined as a Celtic knot), Brendan sets out to battle the Dark One armed with only a piece of chalk. When his foe morphs into an exquisitely patterned and sinister serpent, Brendan draws a circle around it to contain the monster, a nifty metaphor for the power of art to subdue the forces of darkness.
Some character faces (notably Brendan and Aisling) may look a little simplistic next to the expressiveness of motion-capture digital animation. But the various monks are individualized with great humor and style. And Moore can’t resist a grand finale in which he actually does animate the design of four or five pages from the “Book of Kells,” bringing the images to life as vividly as his film illuminates a fanciful chapter in art and cultural history.
THE SECRET OF KELLS ★★★1/2 (out of four)
With the voices of Brendan Gleeson and Evan McGuire. Written by Fabrice Ziolkowski from a story by Tomm Moore. Directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey. A release. Not rated. 75 minutes.