“The Book of Kells” is perhaps the most famous of the illuminated manuscripts — manuscripts that combine ornate text with elaborate drawings, borders, illustrations and initialing. Transcribed by Celtic monks in around 800 AD, it tells the tales of the four Gospels of the New Testament through vivid designs, complex drawings and rich calligraphy. It is the finest the Insular Gospels and is renowned as the most breathtaking example of illumination in history.
The Secret of Kells is an animated film from Ireland about a young Irish boy, Brendan (Evan McGuire), and his friends and family, interwoven within the story of The Book of Kells. It is, at the risk of hyperbole, a staggeringly lovely film that was nothing less than captivating. The story begins with young Brendan, an orphan living with his uncle, the Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), in their abbey. Their days are filled with backbreaking work as they continually try to fortify the abbey walls in preparation for the pending attack by Viking hordes bent on the destruction of all in their path. One day, the legendary illuminator Brother Aiden (Mick Lally) arrives, driven from his island by the Vikings, bringing only the book that is his life’s work and his cat Pangur Bán (a clever reference to the old poem by an Irish monk about his cat). Brendan is quickly enamored of both Aiden and his book, and takes up the new visitor’s quest to find a precious ink that can only be derived from berries gathered from the forest outside the abbey walls.
What follows is the brilliant fable of Brendan’s adventures in the forbidden forest beyond the abbey walls, as well as with his uncle and friends within. It’s told through an incredibly intricate, lavish yet simple animation style that mimics the actual “Book of Kells” — swirling, gorgeous artwork surrounds every frame and is literally hypnotizing. The story is wholly engrossing, a charming tale filled that capitalizes on Brendan’s childlike wonderment at the magics all around him, not the least of which is his new-found fairy friend Aisling (Christen Mooney), a changeling who serves as the spirit protector of the forest. Contrary to what the trailer led me to believe, the assault by the viking horde is not the central focus of the story. Rather, it’s a story of discovery and mystery, of Brendan learning the secrets of illumination and of life beyond the walls he was raised in. He’s one of those inquisitive and precocious kids who, with the aid of the mischievous wildchild Aisling and the renegade abbot Aiden, learns to understand the world around him by experiencing everything he can.
The film is rife with little lessons, not to mention some obvious Christian allegory — it is about a book full of Gospels, after all. I don’t have any wee ones, so I can’t speak to what age group would enjoy it, but it does have some pretty frightening moments. But if the little ones can tough it through those scenes, there is certainly enough eye candy for them to enjoy, enough childish glee flitting through the scenery, and a rich, well-crafted story. This is due to the amazing writing job by writer/director Tomm Moore, who infuses the film with a lively cast of amusing characters, without resorting to weak humor tactics that are too base or too broad. The voice acting is terrific, particularly Gleeson, whose gentle, somber voice reverberates through his scenes.
Of course, what brings this surprisingly deep adventure tale together is the surreal, hand-drawn animation, which is simply dazzling. There’s no other way to put it. It’s seemingly simple 2-D drawing, with clunky character movements and choppy progressions, but the artwork is so incredibly ornate that it’s sometimes hard to focus on any one thing. I found myself wanting to constantly rewind and watch again — to take it all in in one viewing is near-impossible. With an artistic style that essentially creates a modern, childish (and I say that in a positive way) mimicry of the Book of Kells itself, it’s a constantly shifting, kaleidoscopic landscape that is simply beautiful. Full of multi-panel shifts and swirling transitions, with shots framed with intricate, painstakingly created Celtic knots and artwork bordering the scenes themselves (and those borders also shift around), it becomes so completely engrossing that you sometimes find yourself simply submersing yourself in the backgrounds. At one point during a particularly grim scene of Viking pandemonium that takes place in the winter, I realized that — and you need to see how much activity is happening to fully appreciate how incredible this is — each snowflake seemed to be individually rendered and distinct. It’s got that level of detail. Full of every conceivable shade of green and gold, the palate of colors is bright and vivid.
If it seems like this review is swamped with hyperbole, that can’t be helped. I watched The Secret of Kells three days ago and still can’t get it out of my head. I don’t know if it’s the best animated feature of the year, as I haven’t seen all of the entries, but I do know that I can’t recall ever being so completely captivated by an animated… no, by any movie. I’m not suggesting it’s the greatest movie of all time, but for right now, in this time and place, it remains on my mind, and I cannot wait to immerse myself in it again.