The story isn’t much—an ungainly little hero tale about an orphaned boy on a quest—but The Secret of Kells isn’t about the story. Nor is it just about the undeniably gorgeous hand-drawn animation inspired by the medieval art of its subject matter. No, what makes the movie so striking and lovely is the way that animation arouses the emotion of its story. The raw plot might be awkward and poorly paced, but the evocative imagery makes it work in spite of itself. One can’t help but feel the joyful freedom of a walk in the woods, the giddy excitement of artistic inspiration, the gnawing fear of a community under siege. The animation gives the story resonance, and the story, slight though it may be, gives the animation meaning. The result is an engaging, wondrous little gem.
A surprise Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature—alongside such powerhouses as The Princess and the Frog and the ultimate (and deserving) winner, Up—The Secret of Kells is a fantasy on the origins of the Book of Kells, a real illuminated manuscript that dates to around 800 and is considered a masterwork of the medium, a genuine treasure of Ireland. In writer-director Tomm Moore’s film, Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), a young monk-in-training, encounters the unfinished book when Aidan (Mick Lally), one of the artists creating it, arrives as a refugee in Kells, where Brendan’s uncle, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), is trying to prepare his small community to withstand the inevitable attack of the Vikings. Cellach sees the book as a distraction from his efforts to build an insurmountable wall around the village, but Brendan loves the book immediately, and Aidan, eager for an apprentice, takes the boy under his wing. Before long, Brendan is running errands into the woods outside Kells, and there he meets the mysterious Aisling (Cristen Moore), who becomes a faithful friend, even as Cellach tries to rein in his nephew and the murderous Vikings press ever closer.
The story as a whole feels both flimsy and overpacked—with Brendan facing hungry wolves and killer Vikings and a terrifying serpent god, not to mention his stern uncle and Aisling the enigmatic wood fairy—but the individual sequences generally work. Brendan’s encounter with the serpent, for example, is bizarre from a narrative standpoint, but visually, it’s a wonder. The animation sloughs off all rules of depth and perspective and plunges into a vivid nightmare of geometric mazes and darkness. The scenes in Aisling’s forest are similarly liberated. The hyper-stylized trees recall the ornate graphics of the illuminated manuscript, with branches curving into delicate filigrees and arabesques, encircling Aisling and Brendan with élan.
Now that 3D filmmaking is well on its way to becoming widespread, if not ubiquitous, The Secret of Kells is a welcome reminder of how bold and attractive two dimensions can be. The Kells animation plays with perspective, sometimes flattening the pictures, sometimes toying with extreme depths. Details are used sparingly but expressively, creating an exquisitely feline cat with a few simple lines and conjuring the horrors of battle with nothing but blocky illustrations in red, black, and white.
As for the book itself, Kells doesn’t elaborate on its religious significance (it contains the four gospels of the New Testament) but lovingly evokes the grandeur of its illustrations, the interlacing knots and symbols, bold colors and radiant gold, impossibly detailed, bewitchingly beautiful. The movie is earnestly committed to the idea that there is something profoundly meaningful in aesthetic achievement, and though the idea goes tantalizingly unexplored, it suggests that the mere survival of humanity would be meaningless if our art could not be saved along with us. In the end, poor little Brendan can’t shoulder all that thematic weight, but even so, The Secret of Kells is a marvel. The story might fade, but I won’t soon forget those monstrous, inky Vikings or the dreamy watercolor-green of the forest or Aisling singing to a ghosted cat, sending it beyond her reach, to places she herself cannot go.