The Secret of Kells (2009, dir. Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey)
Starring Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally
When the 2010 Oscar Nominations were announced I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who wondered “What the hell is The Secret of Kells?” Well, it’s an independently produced Irish film that played for a week in L.A. to qualify for the Academy Awards. The nomination will definitely garner attention for the film when it receives an expansion on American screens on March 12th, but is the picture deserving of the nom? A million times yes, and while Up will probably win because of its notoriety and box office, The Secret of Kells brings a style drastically different from the Disney formula that dominates American animation.
The story of The Secret of Kells is based in the history of Ireland circa 1006 A.D. The Vikings are massacring and raiding any village them come across in the hopes of amassing gold. The Abbey of Kells has become a sanctuary for many monks whose island homes have been burnt to the ground. Now, surrounded by the deep forest, they have gone back to creating gloriously intricate illuminated texts while the Abbot Cellach works to finish the wall before the Vikings arrive. Cellach’s nephew, Brendan befriends Brother Aidan, the monk who has been working on the Book of Iona, believed to be the most beautiful illuminated manuscript ever made. Aidan enlists Brendan’s help in gathering the supplies needed to finish the text by gathering inkberries for him in the forest. Brendan sneaks away, meeting the fairy Aisling, who introduces him to the wonders of the world outside the walls of the abbey.
The intricacies of the animated work in this film are astonishing. From the moment of the prologue, narrated by Aisling, there is no doubt that the love put into the picture is remarkable. The clever reasoning behind the level of detail is a direct nod to the craftsmanship put into illuminated manuscripts by monks. The same swirls, flourishes, and Celtic crosses seen in the texts can be found hidden amongst the gnarled roots of trees and clusters of leaves and flowers. The subtext here is that Brendan can only rise to the level of his hero, Aidan, by journeying beyond the walls of his limited experience. Someone like Aidan has been able to create such a beautiful piece of art because he has confronted his fears and conquered them.
While Brendan’s story does follow closely to the accepted hero’s journey archetype, there are many story beats that separate this film’s plot from others. The unblinking look at violence at this period of time and this part of the world is very much there. When the Vikings rear their ugly heads it is apparent that they leave few alive in their wake. There is also tragedy of other sorts in the film’s climactic sequence involving the unfinished abbey and its weak scaffolding. But the subtext throughout is telling us fear will be your end. Running frightened and unthinkingly at the sight of your fear leads you into destruction, but those characters who use their wits and remain calm are able to escape.
My own personal opinion is that the originality of content and artistic achievement of The Secret of Kells earns it the Best Animated Feature. However, the Academy Awards is usually more reflective of a mix between artistic elements and public awareness, meaning Up is the most likely candidate. Not to take away from Pixar, they would probably argue in favor of Kells as well, but I am excited for this film to reach a wider audience and gain more enthusiasm like mine.