The Secret of Kells

Kells is a delightfully old-school departure.

You might well recognise the title of this Irish-French-Belgian animated film, though have no idea why. Back in February, The Secret of Kells astounded just about everyone by sneaking in a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film, beating out the likes of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, and Monsters vs. Aliens for a slot, though ultimately being bested by Pixar’s vastly superior Up. Kells comes into trouble when trying its hand at emotive humanism, but it is an agreeably odd, independent-minded effort that will dazzle viewers with its trippy, sumptously-designed visuals.

Taking place in the ninth centutry, the film revolves around the prodigious young Brendan (Evan MacGuire), who is expected by his mighty uncle, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), to help plan and implement the building of a wall around their settlement of Kells, in order to keep out the fierce Vikings. However, when Brendan has a chance encounter with Aidan of Iona (the late Mick Lally), a master illuminator, he discovers that the settlement’s only hope is in fact the creation of a magical book which repels darkness with light. Attempting to juggle the concerns of his uncle and Aidan, Brendan must decide what is the right thing to do.

The Secret of Kells is at first glance almost austere-looking in its simplicity, though don’t let its overarching minimalism deter you from what is undeniably a wonderfully composed animated film. The two-dimensional animated characters may at first seem like the crass paper cuttings of South Park, but looking for just a second longer reveals the film’s greater aesthetic depth, of beautiful water-colour vistas and psychedelic, dream-like allegorical imagery. Though evidently low budget, the surfeit of cash has only driven the filmmakers’ imagination to more interesting places; the clever use of three-way split-screens – in which three different environments depict the same journey – is especially good, and dispenses with the comfortable means in which we generally digest these types of films.

Plot-wise, it is a pretty light outing, as is to be expected of a 75-minute film, but it is efficient enough – if quite lean – within the constraints and allowances of that time limit. The film’s apparent – though rarely stereotypical – Irishness gives it an uncanny flavour that will be unfamiliar and fresh to most audiences, yet the plot is light enough to be almost inconsequential in the scope of this film’s achievements. A visual experience first and foremost, Kells has certainly benefitted from a good dose of dazzling computer-generated animation despite its low budget, yet in tone and style, it is distinctly old-school; animated films just aren’t made like this anymore. It is a very simple-minded effort, seeming almost unkeen to ladel out its plot points, and for that reason it is perhaps too slight to fully hold the attention of the very youngest viewers. The magical visuals, however, will keep them enticed to a fair point, and before the film can tire them out too much, it is over.

One major tick in the plus column for Kells is how stringently un-cute and uncommercial it is; there aren’t going to be many plush toys made out of this film (not to take a shot at the wonderful Pixar), and it feels like a story – no matter how wafer-thin – told out of total consideration for what it is trying to be rather than what a quarterly projection from a board of executives wants. The inevitable problem is that it struggles to nourish the heart as well as the eyes and the mind. It is difficult to get emotionally invested in the quest, largely because it is spread so thinly. This is not to say that a deep, emotive narrative cannot be pulled off in barely over an hour – just look at classic Disney fare – but that here, the connect between the characters and their locales just is not apparent enough. The struggle lacks desperation.

As far as accessibility goes, Kells ranks fairly low on the totem pole; its Irish mythological stature, though beautifully depicted here, will likely be too esoteric for many, and I can only begin to imagine how Americans will cope with the accents. However, the set-pieces and visuals are broad and universal enough to keep just about anyone entertained enough – even if it has an unexpectedly savage streak near the end – and Brendan’s battle against a wire-frame underwater serpent is the absolute highlight.

Kells is a film as precocious as its pint-sized hero; keen to open a discourse of how the dissemination of our culture is a large part of what makes us human rather then rest on kid-friendly fables, Kells’ ambition makes it as admirable as it is liable to be divisive. Two things are certain, though; it is positively gorgeous to look at, and it lacks the nuanced humanity of the very best animations.


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