October 20, 2010


Oscar fans were surprised last year when—amid the heavy-hitting Disney films and studio-backed behemoths—The Secret of Kells appeared in the list of Best Animated Feature nominees. With little fanfare and a theatrical release that barely registered, it still found its way to the medium’s elite through persistence and sheer originality.  Now that it’s available on Blu-Ray, viewers can get a look at it for themselves. It demonstrates both why it deserved such accolades and why it went virtually ignored  for so long. Hit the jump to read my full review.

The Secret of Kells resembles nothing else on the market: a fascinating, surreal exercise in pure artistic design. It uses a semi-mythical Irish legend as its basis, then springboards into a full-bore meditation on the fragility of knowledge and the uneasy truce between nature and civilization. In medieval Ireland,  a conclave of monks works to “illuminate” (transcribe) valuable books filled with precious information. They also build a massive wall to keep out Viking invaders, aided by a growing village of displaced peasants fleeing the barbarian onslaught. A young abbot named Brendon (voiced by Evan McGuire) has grown up in the monastery and seen nothing of the world beyond. He longs to visit the nearby woods, but his stern uncle (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) forbids it. The arrival of a wizened old monk—and the priceless Book of Kells which  he carries—prompts the boy to defy his uncle’s orders, thus marking the beginning of a grand adventure.

The fundamentals  remain the same as any other variation of the Hero’s Journey. In the forest, Brendon meets a fairy in the shape of a girl, who promises to help him in exchange for certain favors. A terrible darkness lurks there too, as well as more mundane predators of both the two-footed and four-footed variety.  Directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey keep the narrative loose, allowing us to follow it easily through the endlessly inventive visual acrobatics they  throw at us. The characters are rendered in a simple yet infinitely expressive design, evocative of  medieval tapestries and similar pieces of period art. Each moment carries a new surprise as we move through a world of written symbols reflected in exterior landscapes and fancied imaginings blending with the supposed “reality” of the setting.  It’s as rich and varied as any movie you’ll see—especially considering the tight running time—and you can spend a delightful evening just soaking in its world.

Unfortunately, it almost becomes too imaginative for its own good. So intent are the directors at blowing our socks off and so mightily does the film labor to top itself with every scene  that the story and characters get a little lost in the shuffle. It moves at a glacial pace sometimes—the better to let the animators strut their stuff—and while our eyes pop out at the swirling images on display, it eventually feels as if grabbing our attention is the sole purpose of the exercise.

On a less troublesome note, The Secret of Kells doesn’t shy away from dark material. Though safe for a family audience, some of the sequences grow fairly intense, especially towards the end, when marauding Vikings come a-callin’. Coupled with the slow pace, it makes the film more of a treat for adult animation fans than kids looking for a good time.

Yet a treat it remains, despite its undue emphasis on artifice. So much animation follows the formulaic patterns of Disney and Dreamworks these days that anything  this different merits copious attention.  To it, The Secret of Kells brings a time-honored story, brilliant character design and a uniquely Irish sensibility which enhances its sterling credentials. The Blu-ray includes a fairly typical package of behind-the-scenes featurettes (including the clever bit from the Oscars with the fairy girl commenting on the nomination), and the film itself looks gorgeous in high definition, allowing viewers to fully appreciate the craftsmanship that went into it. Distracting, it may be, but most films would kill for one-tenth as much distraction.


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