Magical May Review: The Secret of Kells

Year: 2009

Runtime: 75 minutes

Director: Tomm Moore

Writers: Tomm Moore, Fabrice Ziolkowski

Actors: Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally, Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, Liam Hourican, Paul Tylak, Paul Young

By Joan Amenn

Anyone who has taken drawing lessons knows that the first thing to master is basic shapes, like circles and triangles. “The Secret of Kells” (2009) is animated with that in mind as it tells the story of a young apprentice who longs to become an illustrator of illuminated texts like the other monks he lives with in an abbey in Ireland. It is a love letter to that country as well as a glorious kaleidoscope of shifting tones from golden amber to rust to greys creating curves, circles and ovals.

This first offering of Cartoon Saloon is a great introduction to the unique art direction and color palette virtuosity that is the hallmark of all of their films. At times, the imagery of “Kells” can be almost too dazzling and eclipse the simple plot. Little Brendan (Evan McGuire) is a curious and helpful boy but his uncle, the Abbott (Brendan Gleeson) keeps him confined behind the stone walls of his abbey. Actually, the Abbott has legitimate concerns for the safety of all his followers since there are Vikings, aka Northmen, pillaging and looting the land on the regular. However, his building project has become obsessive and controlling so that he misses the beauty in the outside world that calls to Brendan.

That outside world is personified by the puckish, magical Aisling (Christen Mooney). She is a sprite or fairy and befriends Brendan as he wanders through the forest that is her home. Really, the only quibbles to be had with this astonishingly beautiful film is that her character is not fleshed out more and the tension between the pagan world and the Christian world that values the Book of Kells is not more clearly laid out. The book is central to the story but we do not know why it is so important besides being illuminated in incredible detail. There is no hint of Christian doctrine suggested, even though monks in an abbey with a Celtic cross displayed kind of begs for a more in-depth explanation. Instead, the Irish pagan traditions of magical forest spirits, both good and evil, are integral to the story and are stunningly brought to animated life. Also, the score is so wonderfully evocative of Ireland and it’s music, it truly elevates the film to a higher level.

“The Secret of Kells” was an amazing achievement in 2009 and Cartoon Saloon, led by director Tomm Moore, has only gotten stronger in its animated offerings since. “Kells” captures the essence of Irish culture in its mystical and joyous detail, especially the love of human creativity in all of its diverse forms. It is a wonderful immersion into color and surprise, led by a mischievous sprite, a noble hearted boy, and a curious cat. How could you not want to follow along with them?

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