Kells, yeah!

The Secret of Kells illuminates virtues of hand-drawn animation

The secret was out on Groundhog Day 2010 when the 82nd Academy Award nominations were announced. Alongside the highly publicized likes of Up and The Princess and the Frog in the Best Animated Feature category appeared The Secret of Kells, perhaps the season’s most surprising nominee. The virtually unknown, hand-drawn Irish/French/Belgian release takes place in ninth-century Ireland and centers around The Book of Kells, a famed, illuminated manuscript of the New Testament.

Up earned the Oscar but The Secret of Kells may have been the true winner, garnering international recognition rather than sinking into obscurity on the art-house circuit. Directed by Tomm Moore, The Secret of Kells’ historical fantasy presents a feast for the eyes, although the support of its peers may be due less to its story than the manner of its telling.

We follow the film’s events through the eyes of Brendan (Evan McGuire), an orphan and novice who lives in the abbey of Kells. At a time of invasions from Viking “Northmen,” Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) obsesses over building a massive wall around the abbey and its surrounding village. “It is with the strength of our walls that they will know the strength of our faith,” he declares, but his concerns turn him into a petty tyrant. He has a point, however, as the film crosscuts to scenes of monstrous Vikings, animated with faceless helms, as they pillage Ireland en route to Kells.

Under the abbot’s orders, Brendan has never ventured outside the wall. Rather than feel deprived, he’s enchanted by the monks’ craft at illustration. Legendary illuminator Brother Aidan (Mick Lally) arrives, bringing a comic-relief cat and his renowned work-in-progress, the Book of Iona. In one of the film’s characteristically lovely touches, Brendan flips through the book and magical symbols seem to jump from the pages, like fish leaping in the surf. Aidan admits to failing eyesight and enlists Brendan first to retrieve berries for ink, then to take other steps to bring the book to fruition.

When he goes beyond the wall for the first time, Brendan nearly falls prey to a wolf pack that patrols an ancient forest. He finds an ally in a white-haired, girlish spirit, Aisling (Christen Mooney), who shows him the beauty of nature but also identifies the dwelling place of an evil spirit. During the film’s most surreal sequence, Brendan outmaneuvers a snake-like supernatural creature that turns at right angles, rather than curves. Despite the nearly apocalyptic attacks from the Northmen, The Book of Kells unfolds tenderly – at times, almost drowsily.

Brendan’s friendship with Aisling suggests that paganism and the church need not be enemies. The soundtrack includes both Gregorian chanting and ethereal Celtic folk music. In general, The Secret of Kells keeps the Christian message implicit, apart from some strategic crucifixes and a Jesus-y looking character at the end. The film also advocates art and literacy over liturgy: If The Secret of Kells ever specifically identifies the book as the Gospels, it’s subtle enough to be completely overlooked.

Moore and his animators take inspiration from the book to render the film in a style reminiscent of pre-Medieval sacred art, with intricate line drawings drenched in light. Although 3-D computer animation occasionally enhances the images, the animation team primarily hand-drew the film in a painstaking, almost monastic style. The film looks like a two-dimensional image brought to life and moving across a page. Thick lines define the characters’ features. That flatness works against an early bit of slapstick, though, when Brendan and the other monks awkwardly chase a goose to pluck its feathers as quills. (The monks appear a bit more ethnically diverse than would be plausible for the period, too.)

The Academy voters may have nominated The Secret of Kells as a means of recognizing the craft of hand-drawn animation, a form that’s currently being supplanted by computerized illustration forms – although, Up was the only all-3-D animated feature nominated in 2010. It may overstate the case to compare 2-D animators to humble artisans besieged by a horde of gigabyte barbarians, but The Secret of Kells conveys the power of images crafted by hand.