Nestled in the heart of Dublin’s Trinity College, the Book of Kells is a beautiful illuminated manuscript. I have visited Dublin twice and viewed the book on both occasions, and though I’m embarrassed to say so, I failed to see the big deal. This partly due to the pre-viewing hype of the museum’s prior rooms, and it’s also difficult for my internet-addled mind to comprehend the importance/rarity of print in the ninth century. Perhaps co-directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey had philistines like me in mind when they made The Secret of Kells, one of the nominees this year for Best Animated Feature. Borrowing heavily from its inspiration, the movie’s compelling imagery will appeal to adults and kiddies, causing them to care more about one of Ireland’s national treasures.
Brendan (Evan McGuire) is a curious boy who has spent his entire life in a medieval monastery. His uncle, the stern Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), is a grave taskmaster whose sole goal is to prepare the monastery for barbarian invasion. Soon a master illuminator arrives, and awakens Brendan’s passion for art and preserving knowledge. The boy ventures beyond the monastery walls so he can recover berries used for ink, whereupon he meets Aisling (Christen Mooney), an mysterious girl who is also half-wolf. The rift between Brendan and his uncle grows and their priorities differ. Barbarians destroy the monastery’s gate, and while the Abbott does whatever he can to preserve life, Brendan and the other monks tirelessly work to finish their illuminated book.
Moore and Twomney’s goal is for audiences appreciate the visuals first and the monks’ craft second. Their visual sense will be familiar fans of The Triplets of Belleville. The characters and settings are deceptively simple, and the simple geometry functions like layers of animated paper. The technique works best during fantastical sequences, such as when Brendan does battle with a pagan monster. The monster is a loathsome snake that can only turn in right angles, so Brendan’s curvy movement is both an interesting counterpoint and foreshadowing of his bookmaking prowess. The directors imbue relatively tame scenes with plenty to admire – dream sequences feature bizarre floating characters, and imagery from the Book of Kells permeates almost every frame. Though is Gleeson as the only recognizable voice, the cast is uniformly professional (McGuire gives Brendan just the right amount of pluck). And it’s no surprise the plot closely follow the hero’s journey, as the familiar story piques audience interest in the book’s history.
As with many independent animated features, The Secret of Kells does not overstay its welcome. With a seventy minute running time, Moore and Twomney’s focus on eye candy prevents an emotional connection with the story. I don’t intend that as a negative – like an oft-repeated fairy tale, the movie engages delightfully in other ways. For those with an interest in Irish history or unusual animation, The Secret of Kells makes for a solid afternoon at the movies. Those who venture to E street will also be treated with a lesson handled in an uncommonly convincing way: that preserving culture is a noble goal, moreso than survival, for what we record will remain after we’re gone.