Animation With Style

'The Secret of Kells' is an enchanting film that will similarly delight both children and adults

While reviewing a film, I like to point out that only a certain subset of the population will enjoy it. For example, if it's something like Saw or Hostel, then I assume that John Yoo and Jay Bybee will want to see it; if it's Sex and the City 2, then I urge paleontologists to give it a look.

But with The Secret of Kells, it's hard to imagine who wouldn't want to see it. Maybe the Amish? But other than them, and those incapable of appreciating beauty, everyone will love The Secret of Kells.

The film was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, though it lost out to something sappier and far-less inventive. Perhaps that's because, instead of the usual three-dimensional, computer-generated attempts at realism, Kells is, like nature and God himself, gloriously two-dimensional. Taking its cue from the eighth-century illuminated manuscript "The Book of Kells," the film is filled with Celtic knots, gilded letters and swirling, circular images that gather up characters, trees, buildings and wolves into undulating, abstract images that tell a clearly delineated story.

Ten-year-old Brendan (the voice of Evan McGuire) lives in the Abbey of Kells, a walled fortress controlled by his uncle, the Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson). There, frightened villagers await the arrival of the evil Norsemen, while a team of scriveners and illuminators work on the ornate manuscripts that Irish monks preserved throughout the Middle Ages.

All of the monks revere the legend of Brother Aidan, the greatest illuminator of all, who lives in far-off Iona. In a glorious, dreamy sequence, we see the island of Iona—a bulge of green in a gold-and-blue sea—attacked by the Norsemen. The raiders are represented as elongated rectangles with horned helmets, fiery eyes and flaming swords burning the island to ash. Brother Aidan flees and arrives at the mechanically complex Abbey of Kells, where the Abbot Cellach devotes all resources to building walls in an effort to keep out the barbarians.

I could imagine that if you were a Norseman, you might be offended by the depiction of your ancient kinsfolk as violent rectangles. But archaeological evidence and Molly Hatchet album covers do suggest that the Vikings were not peace-loving philanthropists, as their descendents—Bjorn Borg, Brigitte Nielsen and Dolph Lundgren—would have us believe.

In spite of the anti-Norse bigotry, Kells is a deeply sensitive film. The focus is on Brendan as he learns, against his uncle's wishes, the art of illumination. In the process, he acquires a deep relation with Brother Aidan, and with a mysterious woodland girl named Aisling, both of whom help him find his artistic voice.

But the true charm of Kells is in its visual beauty. Modern animators seem to have forgotten that highly modeled images in perfect perspective, while certainly truer to naturalism, are not inherently superior to thoughtfully styled, if somewhat more abstract, modes. In Kells, for example, perspective is flattened out in the manner of a medieval mosaic. This allows the animators to produce thematically recurrent images that evoke the enchanting styles of ninth-century Ireland.

Frequently, the characters stand in the middle of highly ornamented concentric circles. One such image is formed by stairs in front of an altar; in another, a ring of wolves encircles frightened monks.

All of this is evocative of the animation styles of the 1960s and '70s. Combining the inventiveness of Fantastic Planet, the geometric abstraction of The Point and the psychedelic swirls of Ralph Bakshi's skies and landscapes in Wizards, Secret of Kells is like a soothing version of an acid trip, only with more monks and berries.

The imagery isn't mere window dressing, though; it's deeply involved in the film's smartest themes. For example, in the forest, trees form endlessly ornate patterns that mimic the knots and twirls of the decorative styles of the monks' border designs, hinting that the mechanical world of the monks has its inspiration in the woodland areas from which they've walled themselves off. But nature isn't simply romanticized in the manner of Avatar's semi-literate smurf-porn. Instead, Kells allows the trees, plants and animals to show a natural world that is vicious and beautiful at the same time.

So I hope everyone will go see Kells. It's the very rare case of a film that children and adults will find equally enchanting. The adults' entertainment doesn't come from winking and going over the children's heads, but from a deeper appreciation of exactly those same elements that are captivating the kids.


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