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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.
Let me explain – illumination is an old kind of art style that used to decorate the pages of manuscripts and bibles. The monks are all illuminators and Brendan serves as their apprentice, though his duties more or less amount to just fetching things and helping with minute tasks (basically your average internship). They wish they had a master illuminator to guide them and mention one Aidan of Iona, who is at the moment on an island working on a special book, one that will turn darkness to light and was started by Saint Collumcille himself, the Book of Iona.
As the monks explain the Book to Brendan, the art style changes to something not unlike your average Flash animation, but it works with the fast-paced way they’re telling the story and switching from narrator to narrator as they argue over certain details.
I should probably get into a little history of the Book itself. This movie is basically a fictionalized version of the creation of The Book of Kells, one of Ireland’s oldest and most priceless treasures. It’s a beautifully illustrated (or “illuminated” if you want to be more specific) manuscript of the New Testament with every page containing detailed pictures of nature, people, and complex patterns, either as individual illustrations or lining the passages. Take a look for yourself.
Now here’s something to pay close attention to in the film – despite the real-life Book of Kells being a essentially a graphic novel version of the Bible, they never once refer to it as a Bible or a Qua’ran. It’s always “The Book”. You could attach a lot of significance to it without bringing in religion. The Book is supposed to bring light and hope to the world, which many would argue is exactly what a Bible or any other piece of written religious work does. But this isn’t about what’s being written in the Book, it’s about the art that’s in the book. Throughout the movie the main focus is the creation of the Book’s artwork and how its beauty can bring people together and give them hope. It’s a message of art, not religion, and how it can inspire others just as much as religion can.
Anyway, as Brendan fantasizes about the book, his daydreams turn into nightmarish visions of vikings attacking Iona. He wakes up because apparently he was dreaming the whole thing…so did that mean he fell asleep while the monks were arguing whether or not Columcille used an extra arm to make the book? There was no transition between the Columcille scene and the viking raid to say otherwise, but we clearly hear him respond to the monks during the vision/flashback so he should be awake, unless it’s one of those cases where you dream you’re awake and then wake up and oh forget this, I have a movie to review!
Brendan runs to his uncle’s tower to deliver some important blueprints and we get the first of many neat transitions we’ll see throughout the film. They’re placed side by side like a comic strip or storyboard panels, but the animation plays a lot with perspective depending on what the situation calls for.
The more I think about it, this film really pays homage to Sleeping Beauty in how its animation and backgrounds are reminiscent of classic medieval paintings. Take a still shot from any point of the film and it would look like something you’d see in a tapestry or stained glass window. Even the way the characters move through them or interact with each other feels like they were perfectly fitted for each other. I know some may find this look and attention to detail distracting, but, like Sleeping Beauty, they do a great job of keeping that style mostly throughout the movie, and you can’t deny it’s gorgeous to look at.
Abbot Cellach’s room is one of the best examples of this. Every space from the walls to the floor is mapped out with different patterns and designs for his wall in chalk. When the scene calls for a closeup on a character, however, the drawings frame them in just the right way so it calls attention to the character and not the drawings themselves.
Brendan tells Cellach of his dream and Cellach concedes that it’s all too real. Everyday the North Men draw a little bit closer, and the only thing separating them from certain doom is the wall. He reminds him how dangerous it is beyond its borders, and how only within its security can they thrive. He’s not doing this to scare Brendan into total submission like, say, Mother Gothel and Rapunzel or Frollo and Quasimodo, but so he can impress how important this wall is to him and the village and to protect him. Brendan goes along with what he says because he’s the closest thing to a father figure he has, and the only person he feels he should win approval from, even defending his obsession of building of the wall from the other monks.
If this were any other movie, Cellach’s strict attitude and need for control and order would make him the bad guy of the picture, or at the very least force him to learn the tried and true lesson of “stop being such a stick in the mud and have some fun with your kids” that most directors believe all father figures need to learn (they sort of do that here too, but when that happens…you know, maybe I should check if I should buy some more tissues. Nah, I’m probably good.)
Instead, they do a good job of showing why Cellach needs to be this way. As the Abbot, he is the one who is basically in charge of all of Kells. He has a duty to protect every person within its walls, and he’d rather treat everyone the same instead of give one person special treatment. He’s also more of a workaholic/man of the cloth than a family man, so having to raise a rambunctious young boy in addition to everything else he does clearly makes him uncomfortable. He just doesn’t know how to talk to a child, so he does it the same way he would an adult, which is sometimes a good thing, but more often not. His lack of affection makes Brendan fear him more than respect him, but with more pressing matters at hand, he doesn’t have the time to think about that.
As Cellach turns his attention back towards his plans, Brendan notices a stranger with a white cat entering Kells and goes down to investigate. The man’s already making a good impression, quickly befriending with the monks. Cellach appears and formally introduces the newcomer – Brother Aidan of Iona, master illuminator (Mick Lally).
Oh, and I should have mentioned by now that the monks do in fact have names, but I’m too lazy to look up and remember each one so I’ll be referring to them throughout this review by their nationality (I can’t think of anyone else who’s seen this movie and hasn’t done the same, so I feel no guilt doing this whatsoever.)
Needless to say, everyone’s excited to have the great Aidan of Iona among them, especially Brendan. Aidan’s anxious to see the scriptorium, but Cellach insists on showing him the plans for his wall. Aidan quietly asks Brendan to find some food for his cat, named Pangur Ban, as Cellach steers him towards the tower. Brendan chases Pangur and winds up overhearing Cellach and Aidan’s conversation.
Apparently, Aidan and Cellach already know each other. Cellach isn’t exactly thrilled to have Aidan here, especially seeing how he just escaped from a viking attack on Iona and will have most likely led them to Kells. Aidan, on the other hand, is still getting used to referring to Cellach as Abbot. He advises him that as someone who has seen a viking raid firsthand, no matter how much work is put into his wall, there is nothing that can hold them back. All they can do is run and pray. Cellach, however, remains insistent that the wall will protect them and save civilization from the pagans, and there’s little that can convince him otherwise.
This is a great scene that sets up a lot of tension between Cellach and Aidan. In addition to their clashing ideologies, you can tell there’s a lot of history between these two without having them flat out say why. There’s enough clues throughout the movie for you to figure out for yourself. Here’s one I’ll leave just for you – before leaving the room, Aidan remarks that Cellach was always good at drawing.
That night, Brendan creeps into the scriptorium to get a look at the Book of Iona for himself. Pangur, who’s been standing guard, nearly frightens him away with a shadow jumpscare. I’d call this out for being cheap, but one, it’s so quick you’ll miss it if you blink, and two, it’s actually a clever bit of foreshadowing for what Brendan will face later.
And I just realize I made a bad pun. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
Aidan enters and after playfully letting slip that he knew Brendan was eavesdropping before, he assures him he won’t rat him out to the Abbot. He lets Brendan see the Book, and he is instantly blown away by the beauty it holds. We only have his reaction to go by, but don’t worry, we’ll get a look at the “work of angels” as Brendan calls it soon enough. Also, Aidan’s reaction to that always makes me smile (“The work of angels? I didn’t know they made angels as funny looking as me!”)
That’s why I love Aidan so much, he’s a wise old man but he doesn’t take everything too seriously, is very approachable and his enthusiasm is contagious. I’d be willing to put him up there among Gandalf, Yoda and Dr. King Schultz as one of my favorite old mentor characters.
Aidan then shows Brendan the book’s masterpiece, the Chi’ro Page…which is a blank page in the middle of the book. It’s not ready yet, but Aidan asks Brendan for his help in creating it. Brendan jumps at the offer, until Aidan asks him to go in the forest and collect some berries. Brendan confesses that he has never been to the woods before. Heck, he’s never been outside of Kells before, thanks to how dangerous he was raised to believe the outside world is. Aidan tells him he’s partly right, that he’s lost brothers and friends to invaders from outside (there’s a great piece of animation here where his shadow momentarily takes the form of the vikings), but you’ll find more knowledge and beauty out there than remaining locked away, something the Abbot knew a long time ago.
Back in his room, Brendan materializes his thoughts through some chalk drawings that animate before him. Pangur Ban watches as he weighs his options – go out, find the berries and make Aidan proud, or risk his uncle’s wrath or worse alone in the woods. The style is cute if a bit crude, as if a child really did draw it, and it does a decent job at conveying the possible scenarios. In spite of his fears, Brendan eventually makes up his mind and sneaks out the following morning through a hidden opening in the wall.
And pardon me while I indulge in the artwork some more because this forest…this forest…
Have I already mentioned how beautiful this movie is? Yes? Well, you’re about to hear it from me again. As stylized as it is, you still get the feeling of being in nature. Every curve, every line, every shade of green, every drop of sun light shining through the trees is just perfect.
They not only capture the beauty of nature, however, but the danger as well. Shortly after entering the woods, Brendan can’t help but feel that he’s being watched. Moments later, he and Pangur Ban find themselves cornered by a pack of wolves in a circle of old Celtic ruins. You might notice that the circle they’re trapped in is a pattern that pops up quite a lot the film – parts of the forest, the floor plan of the Abbot’s room, even Kells itself – a huge eye. Pay attention, it’s important later.
Pangur Ban escapes, leaving Brendan to be the wolves’ next meal (which, judging by my experiences with Irish food, they’ll regret eating the morning after), until a distant wolf howl calls off the pack. A new wolf appears, one completely white with green eyes. Brendan closes his eyes and prepares to meet his maker…until an indignant voice asks him “Is this your cat?”
This is Aisling (pronounced ASH-ling), a forest fairy and the character who most people consider the breakout star of this film (she is the only character whose face is on the poster. Heck, her face IS the poster.)
Christen Mooney, who voices her, gives her a lot of sass, and not the fake sass most child actors give like trying to cuss and sound cute. She starts out like a bratty kid who’s brother invaded her room but quickly warms up to the idea of having someone new to play with. In other words, she sounds like a real kid. Also, I love her design. Rather than looking like a sprightly Tinkerbell clone, she’s an energetic child, with the only hint of her magical nature coming from her eyes and her long, white hair (and I just love her big bushy eyebrows, they allow for so much expression).
Aisling’s not too happy that strangers have come into her forest and suggests Brendan takes Pangur and makes like a tree before she sics the wolves on them. Brendan tries to explain why he’s there, but it’s kind of hard to describe the concept of books and pages and ink to someone who’s lived in the forest their whole life. Aisling does soften, however, when Brendan mentions he has no family to go back home to. She decides to take Brendan and Pangur to the part of the woods where the berries he’s looking for are kept. And if you thought the forest was breathtaking before…
Aisling leads Brendan up a tree to where the berries are (they’re actually hornet’s eggs or something, hence why there are bees buzzing them, but they keep referring to them as berries for some reason), and they explore the sheer beauty that is the forest as well as the creatures around them. Brendan and Aisling find themselves quickly bonding, but then Brendan discovers a foreboding-looking cave in the darker part of the forest. Aisling begs him to leave it be, warning him that the cave is home to an ancient pagan god, a thing of pure evil referred to as the Dark One.
Brendan isn’t put off by this, however, as the Abbot has told him not to be afraid of imaginary things…which he says in front of a creature which up until a short time ago he believed to be imaginary.
On mentioning the Dark One’s name, Crom Cruach, the forest eerily grows silent except for the sound of crows flying overhead. We hear something stir inside the cave, something huge and ancient. Black tendrils come out and threaten to pull Brendan inside, but Aisling manages to push an old statue in front of the entrance, blocking it. As Brendan recovers, we get a taste of how Crom’s power affects Aisling.
Despite nearly getting the life sucked out of her, Aisling invites Brendan to return any time he likes with Pangur. She guides him back to the abbey where, unfortunately for him, the Abbot has noticed his long absence. Brendan is forced to come clean and Cellach reprimands him for disobeying him despite his warnings. He forbids him from leaving the abbey again, not even allowing Brendan to get a word in about doing it for Brother Aidan and the Book.
Later that night, Brendan sneaks back to the scriptorium and delivers the berries to Aidan. Delighted, Aidan shows Brendan how to make colored ink with them. It results in a vial of emerald green ink and a blast of thick green smoke.
This is another thing I really like about this movie. They show you how they made the artwork of the book and the tools utilized using real methods of the time. As an artist myself, I’ve always loved movies or shows that are about the making of art or movies (Singin’ in the Rain, The Artist, The Reluctant Dragon, Shadow of the Vampire, Sunday in the Park with George, and yes, even Saving Mr. Banks) and this movie I can happily count as one of them.
Aidan encourages Brendan to do a bit of drawing himself with the ink, and he gives it a go. Despite a few flubs, he clearly has some talent, something that doesn’t escape Aidan’s attention. He returns every night from then on from then on in secret.
We get a few scenes of Brendan improving his art with Aidan’s guidance, intercut with him visiting Aisling and showing off his work to her, and coming back from the woods inspired, as his art incorporates a lot of nature motifs. Work on the wall progresses as the viking raids across Ireland continue and more refugees pour into Kells.
And yeah, about those vikings –
I may have nitpicked about the way that one African monk looks, which means I should have every right to complain about the North Men considering A) they go out of their way to make them look as monstrous as possible after showing the multiculturalism in the abbey and B) I myself am of Norwegian descent and proud of it.
But, crazy as it may sound, I’m actually not all that upset at how Vikings are portrayed in this film. Yes, my people may have pillaged and plundered and killed in the past, and we are the reason why the Book of Kells doesn’t have its oh-so pretty golden cover (that happened in real life, by the way, it’s not just something they stick later in the film to show evil they are), but this takes place from the point of view of characters who are the victims of Viking raids, so it would make sense that they look like hordes of demons invading their homes and stealing and slaughtering the innocent.
Still, I can take comfort in the fact that it’s been proven that the Vikings were the first equal opportunity employers, including women in their excursions on the high seas. And the first to acknowledge rape may not be such a good thing by setting some pretty heavy rules concerning that. And we beat Columbus AND Amerigo Vaspucci to North America by a couple of hundred years. AND we’re the only people I know of that know how to train dragons! What have you Irishmen contributed to the world…other than potatoes, a national drinking holiday, beautiful folklore and decades worth of outstanding poetry, plays and literature? Huh? HUH??
Eventually, Aidan confesses something Brendan – he’s getting far too old to keep doing work on the Book and wants Brendan to be the the one to do the Chi’ro Page. All this time they’ve spent in the scriptorium he’s actually been prepping him for it. Brendan is more than a bit overwhelmed by this revelation, which isn’t helped by his uncle shouting at him to return to work while Aidan waits for an answer. Torn between the two, Brendan flees, leaving Aidan to sadly muse that Brendan needs to face the fears that are holding him back before he is truly ready.
Despite his lack of self-confidence, Brendan continues his training with Aidan. One night, Aidan decides that it’s time for him to take the next step in creating art for the book – it’s time to use the crystal.
No, not that crystal (though this would be a completely different movie if gelflings were involved). The crystal Aidan is referring to serves as a magnifying glass that can be used to add the tiniest of detail to his paintings. The legend goes (and we go back to the Flash-art style for this) that Columcille used it as his “third eye” to bring his artwork to life and said on his deathbed that it should only be used by an apprentice worthy of it.
There’s just one problem – Aidan can’t find the crystal.
To his horror, he remembers losing it during his escape from the vikings on Iona, and without it, they are both unable to move forward in finishing the book. Brendan suggests trying to find another one or praying for a miracle, but it seems highly unlikely. Aidan does mention that the Eye of Columcille did go by another name once, named after the creature that Columcille supposedly won it from – Crom.
Brendan goes back to his room to think it over, and decides the only way to get another crystal and complete the book is to return to Crom’s cave in the forest. He sneaks back out, but this time, Cellach catches him in the act.
For disobeying him further, Cellach bans Brendan from going to the scriptorium and spending time with Brother Aidan. Rather than quietly obeying this time, Brendan finally stands up to him. He begs his uncle to take one look at the Book for himself to see why this is important, not just to him and Aidan, but to the world. He’s shutting everyone out by focusing so much on his wall. Unfortunately, Brendan hits a nerve when he says Aidan told him Cellach was once an illuminator himself. Cellach drags Brendan to his room and locks him in until he sees reason. Then he goes to confront Aidan himself.
Aidan tries to apologize for Brendan’s actions, but Cellach tells him he’s already punished and he’s personally making sure that there will be nothing there to distract him anymore. Then he tries to take the Book away from Aidan. Aidan has to remind him that he was the one charged with the book. Although both men’s voices are calm, they’re on even footing and not physically struggling against each other, their shadows suggest something else entirely. Cellach finally relents, on the condition that Aidan leaves with the book come spring. It seems all hope for the Book and Brendan is lost. Thankfully, Pangur Ban has been keeping a close eye on Brendan and goes out into the woods to seek help. What she finds is the wolf pack from before.
Pangur returns to Kells with Aisling and she alerts Brendan to her presence. Brendan suggests getting a message to Aidan, but Aisling has other plans. She grabs Pangur, and after climbing up the tower like a ghostly Spider-Girl, she sits on the ledge outside the Abbot’s window and sings. What follows is one of the most beautiful and haunting sequences of the film.
With her song, she turns Pangur Ban into a misty catlike creature and sends him into Cellach’s room to fetch the key and free Brendan. The lighting and shadows, the music, the animation…it’s hypnotic. Yes, you could make the argument that why doesn’t she just do that to herself but most folklore has pagan and mystical creatures powerless against holy relics or sacred ground (the fearful look Aisling gives as she appears in the abbey and eyes the huge crucifix says it all; she knows she shouldn’t be there.)
Freed, Brendan flees with Aisling and Pangur back into the forest where Brendan tells her why he was locked up. Aisling is horrified at the thought of going back to the cave, and not just because it nearly killed her the last time they went there. She tells him that Crom was responsible for destroying her people and her mother, and doesn’t want to lose her only friend to the same fate. Brendan insists that it’s the only way to complete the Book, however, and Aisling reluctantly agrees to help him.
As they return to the cave, its dark aura already begins to affect Aisling. Despite her growing weaker by the second and Brendan begging her to turn back, she stays by him and manages to open the cave. The black tendrils reappear and drag Brendan into the cave. Aisling begs him with her last words to turn to the darkness into light as she takes one final look at him and OH DEAR LORD!!!!
Seriously, that split second frame has to be one of the scariest jump-scare scary face moments on film I’ve ever seen, easily top ten. It gets me every time. I’m sure if Rick Baker saw this he’d think “Huh, I knew I could have come up with something scarier for my movies.”
Brendan falls into a chasm that opens up and comes face to face with the Dark One himself,
Dick Cheney Crom.
I have to say this wasn’t what I was expecting when imagining an ancient, evil deity, but I like it. The further removed from humanity something is (be it psychologically or physically), the more easy it is to fear and consider a threat, and turning your god into a one-eyed giant lamprey/eel/snakelike creature instead of giving him a human form definitely works in this case. The filmmakers studied fish that only live in the darkest depths of the ocean for inspiration, which makes sense since Crom does thrive in the dark and it and Brendan move around its lair like they’re swimming underwater. I should note that Crom is CGI, but the way he’s animated meshes beautifully with the hand-drawn animation.
What follows is a great confrontation between Brendan and Crom. It’s not only Brendan fighting to stay alive, it’s a metaphorical battle between him and his talents against all his fears and setbacks. His creative journey through the film has been leading up to this. It’s full of suspense and really cool to look at. All that Brendan’s armed with is a piece of chalk, and when he discovers its power in this strange world he’s in, he uses it not to kill Crom, but trap him and take the creature’s eye. Enraged, the blind monster starts tearing itself apart as Brendan floats away, watching him disappear through the crystal.
Brendan wakes up the next morning in the cave, now flooded with sunlight. The crystal has shrunk to the size of his hand, the stone blocking the cave is split in two, and Aisling is nowhere to be seen. Brendan is worried at first, but he sees his cloak folded neatly before him, surrounded by thousands of white flowers leading the way back home. Though her fate is never made explicitly clear, we get the feeling that Aisling managed to survive, though not without some small sacrifice.
Brendan returns to the scriptorium and surprises Aidan with the Eye. Despite his initial fears of Cellach discovering him out of his room, he is pleased with Brendan and begins showing him how to use it. Brendan’s talents quickly improve as his art becomes more intricate and colorful. Word spreads to the monks about Brendan’s work and one by one they slip away from their wall-building duties to watch him create, even going behind Cellach’s back to help him sneak in and out of his room.
Cellach, meanwhile, remains oblivious to their deception, but the toll of working alone on the wall and believing his nephew isn’t responding to any attempts he makes to reconcile is taking a toll on him. And once again, it is shown through shadows.
The charade doesn’t last forever, however. Winter has finally come, the wall has just been completed, and more refugees arrive with the warning that the Vikings are on their way to Kells. Cellach bursts into the scriptorium with the news only to find Brendan and Aidan together, surrounded by all the monks. Betrayed, he lashes out at them for wasting time drawing and informs them of the oncoming attack. Aidan pleads with him to gather everyone and run, but Cellach isn’t moved. He sends the monks out to warn to the villagers and keep them in the chapel for safety then locks Aidan and Brendan inside to “protect their precious book”.
And then, we have the invasion scene. And…
I know I’ve already gone on and on about one scene being brilliant and another looking amazing and so on, but the following four minutes is just heart-pounding, heartbreaking, leaving-you-sitting-at-the-edge-of-your-seat perfection.
It starts deadly quiet, as if the whole world were holding its breath, waiting for the first strike. Snow is gently falling. The world is painted in shades of white and grey. The villagers are silent, but anxious. Cellach remains outside, his eyes fixated on the wall, the one thing keeping the North Men out.
Like previously with Crom, the presence of death is foretold with a murder of crows flying over the village.
The people begin to panic as the crows swoop in and the pounding on the doors threatens to break them down. Fear flashes across Cellach’s face. He calls for them to stay in their homes. And then the first of a barrage of flaming arrows come hurtling over the wall, hitting –
Kells is thrown into utter chaos from then on, as it turns to from white to black and red. The village is set aflame, and the vikings succeed in breaking down the doors as well as scaling the walls. The way they troop in breathing heavily, moving stiffly like automatons, and even their eyes, which appear to be glowing, make them seem more inhuman than before. When they speak, it’s either deep, guttural sounds or monosyllabic (“Scout!” and “gooold” are the only discernible things I’ve heard from them). Their one objective – kill anything that moves.
Cellach manages to get up and calls to the Asian monk, who has been sequestered in the tower, now the only real safe place in all of Kells, to open the door and get as many people inside as possible. Of course, since there’s a lot of terrified people desperate to stay alive, they mob each other and try to get up the rickety wooden stairs all at once, despite Cellach shouting at them to go one at a time. With that many people, the stairs can’t possibly hold, and they don’t. To everyone’s horror, they collapse, sending everyone stuck on them falling to their deaths.
And if you don’t think that nobody was killed by that fall, then the way everyone reacts to it will convince you otherwise. Not to mention the stairs were also being burnt by the vikings’ fire and you don’t see anyone getting up or crawling out from the debris, so…yeah. If shit wasn’t real already, then it certainly got real now.
The Asian monk manages to close the door while everyone else scatters. Cellach takes in the destruction all around him. Everything he has worked for is falling to ruins and there’s nothing he can do about it. He then notices the scriptorium is now burning and only one thing comes to mind – Brendan.
He limps towards the building, just narrowly avoiding getting hit by the vikings several. He inches closer and closer, refusing to let the arrow still embedded in his shoulder slow him down, and finally, when he’s almost there…the viking leader comes up and runs him through with his sword, takes his shiny gold horseshoe and leaves him to die on the cold hard ground.
Meanwhile, Brendan and Aidan are fighting to get out as the scriptorium burns around them when they realize the vikings are fighting to get in. Brendan comes up with the idea of creating the smoke bomb with the ink again, and as the vikings barge in, they’re able to distract them and make their escape.
Brendan sees his uncle lying unconscious and tries to go to him, almost getting himself and Aidan caught in the process. Aidan is forced to hold him back despite Brendan pleading to help him. He tries to get it through to him that there’s no possible way they can help him now and stay alive. Heartbroken, Brendan takes Aidan and Pangur to the secret exit through the wall. Cellach briefly comes to just after they leave and sees the vikings exit the scriptorium, leading him to think that the worst has happened. He tearfully whispers Brendan’s name before passing out once more.
If that wasn’t heartwrenching enough, that’s followed by, yes, even more deaths. In the chapel, the other people Cellach hoped to protect by locking them in along with the rest of the priests we’ve come to know and love huddle together as the vikings burst in. The only thing we hear are the people screaming before it quickly fades to black, but you know for a fact that they are not coming out of this alive.
After everything we’ve seen, how much we’ve grown to care for Kells and the people in it, this scene is a huge punch to the gut, albeit an amazingly choreographed and animated punch to the gut. You hear the screams mingled with the cry of the ravens as the smoke climbs into the sky. You see the charred remains of the houses and the broken remnants of Cellach’s wall from high above, forming a twisted version of the Eye. I give the filmmakers a lot of credit for taking this scene as seriously as possible; there’s no last minute family film back-out, no moments of comic relief or a battle where the villagers rally and come out the victors. Just a village being destroyed and lives permanently upended (or ended). This was a huge risk and it pays off handsomely.
In the woods, Brendan and Aidan run for their lives. Brendan wants to go back for his uncle, but Aidan now has to step up and look after the both of them, meaning he has to lay down the unfortunate truth – if the North Men left no one alive in Iona, it’s most likely that they won’t leave anyone alive in Kells. Cellach is probably dead at this point and it’s now up to Aidan to keep him safe for him. Unfortunately, that’s when the vikings catch up to them.
Their leader takes the Book from them, but is only interested in the shiny gold cover and rips out the pages. Before they can kill them, however, they’re set upon by a pack of wolves that leave Brendan and Aidan unharmed. They try to pick up the scattered pages, and as Brendan chases after one, he comes face to face with a white wolf. A white wolf with familiar green eyes that disappears like mist.
In Kells, the survivors come out of the tower to find their home in ruins. They also find Cellach, not dead but still gravely injured. He wakes up facing the burnt-out scriptorium and quietly begs to just be left alone.
My God, does Brendan Gleeson knock it out of the park here. With only his voice and just a few lines he encompasses all of the pain Cellach is going through. This is a man who has been wounded in every way possible. He’s lost his village, his pride, and worst of all, his only family, and it is all because of him. He is just ready to give up and die right there.
But the little monk reminds him that he is the Abbot of Kells, the one person that the whole village has to look to. He must get up.
Meanwhile, we get another montage of Brendan and Aidan traversing Ireland with Pangur. Brendan matures into a young man while he and Aidan continue to work on the book. Some people complain that since we’re nearing the end this part feels rushed, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel that way sometimes, but then again…
Eventually, Aidan passes away (he hands the Book to Brendan followed by an image of his footprints in the sand being washed away and a dove flying into the sky; short, subtle and sweet), leaving Brendan and Pangur to take the Book out into the world as it was meant to and give the people hope in these –
Hang on…Pangur is still alive after all this time?? Do Irish cats’ nine lives average out to be three hundred years each? Is she really a magic cat or a forest spirit? I know one of the latter reasons is supposed to be implied as such considering her design is strikingly similar to Aisling’s, but as someone who’s owned cats I can’t help but say it –
Yeah. You heard me.
That’s not the only anti-aging shenanigans going on. Back in Kells we see that Cellach has become the same sad old man briefly seen in the opening, but the Asian monk has somehow not changed a bit (unless we’re running on the same logic as why Carl and Muntz in Up look the same age despite a twenty-year gap or he’s actually a lot older than he looks).
Cellach spends his days either staring mournfully out the window or at the tiny drawing Brendan was working on before the vikings attacked, the only thing that he has to remember him by. The Asian monk urges him to get some rest, but Cellach is too distraught, lamenting that he was the one that brought destruction on Kells and allowed its greatest treasure to be destroyed.
And is it just me, or is Cellach referring more to Brendan than the Book when he says that? He immediately follows that line with “How was I to know…that he would perish?” And I…
In the woods, Aisling appears before Brendan in her wolf form and leads him back to Kells. His arrival in a long hooded cloak during a thunderstorm makes Cellach mistake him for the Angel of Death and he tearfully begs him for more time. Brendan reveals himself, however, and because movie logic dictates that the return of the hero causes all bad weather to be put on hiatus, the rain instantly stops and it becomes nice and sunny.
Brendan and Cellach are overjoyed to see each other. When Cellach expresses his regret at not listening to him and Aidan and losing the Book, Brendan shows it to him. It is now no longer the Book of Iona, but the Book of Kells. Cellach opens the book and we see what he sees – art coming to life.
All joking aside, the last sequence of the film is one of the most gorgeous, an actual page from the real Book of Kells animated. It’s simple but absolutely mesmerizing. Every intricate detail moves with fluidity into place before we see it all come together. The colors, the animals, the swirling Celtic knots and circles…it’s just incredible.
So there you have it. In my opinion, The Secret of Kells is not only one of the best animated films as of recent years, but I’d be willing to put it up there among the best ever made. It’s more adult than some might give credit for, but never losing that simple childlike sense of wonder. The characters are engaging, the lore and the depiction of life in that time period breathe life into this world, and do I even need to talk about the artwork? Simply writing about it doesn’t do it justice seeing how the visuals play such a huge part as to why this film is as great as it is, so I highly suggest you watch the film at your earliest convenience (not just because it’s that good, but also because if you don’t support the official release, the Trans-Pacific Partnership will fuse with the MPAA into a monstrous unholy abomination and eat me).
Wait a minute…they have it available to watch for free on Hulu?? Never mind! Looks like I’m safe for one more month.
Thank you for reading. If you like what you see and want more reviews, vote for what movie you want me to look at next by leaving it in the comments. Remember, you can only vote once a month. The list of movies available to vote for are under “What’s On the Shelf”.