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“I have lived through many ages…through the eyes of salmon, deer, and wolf…
I have seen the North Men invading Ireland, destroying all in search of gold…
I have seen suffering in the darkness…
Yet I’ve seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places…
I have seen the Book…the Book that turned darkness into light.”
– Prologue to “The Secret of Kells”
2009 was, in my opinion, a banner year for animation – you got Disney’s return to hand-drawn animation (The Princess and the Frog), Pixar’s 10th film which would become the second animated movie to ever be nominated for Best Picture (Up), another eccentric, beautiful entry into the world of Miyazaki (Ponyo), and not one but TWO excellent stop-motion films, the latter helmed by the director of one of my favorite movies of all time (Fantastic Mr. Fox and Coraline). It was no surprise that most of them were nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars that year, but there was one movie nominated that not many people knew of and took us by surprise. That movie, all the way from Ireland, is “The Secret of Kells” (or “Brendan and the Secret of Kells” if you’re watching from somewhere other than the US).
When I first heard of the movie I didn’t quite know what to think of it. I had no idea what the story was or who these characters were, but it was the visuals struck me the most. It had this very Gendy Tartakovsky feel to it, like something you’d see in Samurai Jack, but at the same time had this very organic original look. I watched a few clips and became more intrigued by this world and what kind of story it was trying to tell. Even though traditional animation is still used to make films in other parts of the world, it’s sadly very rare to see it utilized in the States anymore, so that also got me interested. It certainly must have done something right to get a standing ovation from the staff at Pixar.
But in the end you have to ask yourself, was this little hand-drawn indie film from the other side of the world deserving of all the nominations and the accolades it’s been given?
Yes. Yes it is. I wouldn’t be looking at this film if it wasn’t. Here it is, you voted for it and I’m reviewing it, Cartoon Saloon’s Academy Award-nominated animated film, The Secret of Kells.
We open with the aforementioned prologue spoken over flashes of different scenes, most, if not all of which will come into play during the film. Without the narration they might seem disconnected, but together they do a fantastic job of setting the mood for what we’re about to see. Regardless of whether you have your volume on or not while watching this (and I can honestly say this is one of the few films you’ll be able to understand what’s happening and enjoy even without it), they are amazing to look at – vikings raiding an island, a man and a cat escaping through a stormy sea, animals roaming forests, an old man lamenting alone in the dark, and an innocent face peering out from the leaves.
After that sequence, we meet our main character, Brendan (Evan McGuire). He’s on a wild goose chase with a bunch of monks…let me rephrase that.
They’re trying to get some feathers from a goose to use as quills which results in a fun chase throughout the abbey of Kells. It’s interesting to note that each of the monks represents a different nationality, which, while very simple, is a rather nice touch. After all, the art from the book that this film drew inspiration from (The Book of Kells, but more on that later) did have artwork drawn in and inspired by styles from other nations. That does make some of the design choices for a few of the monks a bit problematic, however…
Before I turn this into a controversy (something I’d really hate to put upon this film), I want to say that despite how distracting the African monk might look the first time you see him, he is NOT an offensive character. Nothing he does or says is like any of the negative stereotypes that unfortunately still often persist in the media. I only wanted to give anyone who wants to watch this film a heads up so they’re not too thrown off and make a quick little joke about it as well. Let’s move on.
So the race to catch the goose continues –
– until Brendan finally catches him. He and the monks have a good laugh until Brendan’s uncle, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), appears on the scene. He sternly berates them for fooling around instead of tending to their duties and reminds them they’ll be back to work tomorrow.
You see, Cellach is working on a huge wall encompassing all of Kells to keep the threat of invaders from the North away (and after reading the prequel comic – which I can’t recommend enough – I can say his reasons for making sure the Vikings don’t raid his village are more than justified.) Most of the village, including the monks, have all been recruited in helping to build the wall.
I’ll get into more detail into why I think Cellach such a great complex character later, but I’ll say this for now – this short scene does a good job of establishing how everyone else views him. Brendan’s playful and curious demeanor falls away and he loses his voice under his uncle’s gaze. Even the monks are unable to speak up around him. Cellach has no time to deal with your nonsense and he makes sure everyone knows it with just his stare.
The monks bring the quills to the scriptorium, where they lament how they wish they could stop slaving over the Abbot’s wall and go back to their real work – illumination.