The Secret of Kells

As strikingly animated and superlatively textured a motion picture as “The Secret of Kells” is, it can be a little aloof. A blend of history and mythology, the feature is a distinctive enterprise that aims to challenge family audiences and animation purists with a tenaciously 2-D snapshot of the world. It’s a passionate, dreamlike offering of filmmaking that requires the viewer to surrender to its often challenging storytelling, yet the time invested with this fringe player in the animation marketplace clash of the titans is rewarded with a resourceful, exquisite tale of tradition and education.

In the 9th century, Abbot Cellach (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) has ordered the construction of a massive wall to help protect the Abbey of Kells from the wrath of the Vikings. Brendan (Evan McGuire) is a child growing up in the center of the settlement, curious about the forests that stand beyond the stone. Arriving hastily in Kells after a Viking attack is Brother Aiden (Mick Lally), who’s been working on a collection of illumination called The Book of Iona. Sensing a great apprentice in Brendan, Aiden sends the boy off into to the woods to retrieve berries for ink, where he finds friendship with a lonely fairy named Aisling (Christen Mooney). As the Vikings approach the abbey, Cellach attempts to keep Brendan’s soaring spirit suppressed, viewing the preservation of the book as a needless distraction in the face of a violent reality.

I realize that just because “The Secret of Kells” is animated doesn’t automatically make it a family film. However, there’s an effort from co-directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey to bring this ominous fable down to an approachable size through the colorful imagination of the filmmaking and the boundless determination of Brendan, who overcomes his lack of years with a feisty spirit of youthful questioning. Despite the forbidding tone and historic setting, younger viewers will find plenty to cheer about with “The Secret of Kells,” which smartly puts forward an adventurous tone of discovery, artistic significance, and supernatural confrontation.

While the mystery of the book and the menace of the Vikings provides a great deal of suspense, the true hook of “The Secret of Kells” is the animation, which is pure hand-drawn mastery. Reminiscent of Richard Williams’s abortive “The Thief and the Cobbler,” Moore and Twomey imagine a largely angular world for Brendan, with exaggerated human characteristics pushed up against a colorful, perspective-bending environment, with use of split-screen and assorted surreal tangents to shake up the visual experience. Once Brendan enters the forbidden forest, the picture indulges in a range of cartoon expressions and ethereal movement, as Aisling dances around the frame indicating her flexible bond with nature. Villainy is handled superbly through the refrigerator-with-horns design of the Vikings, while Brendan’s demonic trials are bestowed painterly grace, making his battles to preserve the book dramatically and artistically nourishing.

Chaos storms in for the final act, which spends perhaps too much time on Cellach’s nightmare of invasion. More compelling is Brendan’s budding artistry, taking over the Book of Iona, giving the ornately designed pages a new purpose through his time in Kells. Suffering from a slight emotional frigidity as it sniffs out an ending, “The Secret of Kells” remains a feast for the eyes, breaking the stasis of the genre with an inspired tale, lovingly crafted by exceptional filmmakers.

Rating: B+
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