The Secret of Kells


Writing about an Irish movie last week was fun (Ondine), especially because I got to show off my particular knowledge of Irish folklore and culture, so this week I’m going to show you another great Irish movie from 2009, this time the animated feature The Secret of Kells.

The film is set in Ireland some time around the eighth century, and tells a heavily fictionalized account of the completion of the Book of Kells, an illustrated book of the four gospels which is widely considered Ireland’s first and greatest national treasure.

Our protagonist, Brendan, is a young boy living in the Abbey of Kells, which was established by his uncle Abbot Kellach as a refuge from Viking raids (Ireland had a nasty Viking problem back then). But everything changes when the monk Brother Aiden of Iona arrives at Kells, bringing with him the uncompleted book. Together with Aiden and a fairy girl named Aisling, Brendan vows to complete the book, which Aiden promises will bring light and illumination to these dark times.

Ok, so let’s just get right to the main thing: the animation in this movie is freaking gorgeous. The colors are rich and varied, the movement is smooth and dynamic and several sequences in particular are unlike anything you’re likely to see in Western or even Japanese animation.

The influences are clear to see, there are shades of works like Samurai Jack and The Thief and the Cobbler, which have been confirmed by the filmmakers. But while you can see the influences, the film still feels refreshingly original in its style and execution.

The characters are similarly rich and well-developed. Abbot Kellach is the antagonist of the film, but that doesn’t mean he’s a villain. He has a clear and understandable motivation for what he’s doing: he wants to keep the people under his wing, Brendan in particular, safe.

He sees Brendan’s new found sense of adventure and curiosity about the outside world, and wants to repress it, fearing that it will lead to his end. The fact that he’s voiced by the extremely talented Brendan Gleeson, one of the most recognizable and talented Irish actors working today doesn’t hurt either.

If the film has any villains it would be the pagan deity Cromm Cruach (more on him later) and the vikings, though they come across as some kind of demonic automatons, operating without any real agency or character.

Brendan himself is an excellent child protagonist, exuberant and youthful without being annoying (or having what I like to call “Jake Lloyd syndrome”). He wants to help Brother Aiden complete the book, and forms a realistic and interesting relationship with the monk, who fosters his energy and creativity in a way his uncle never did. Evan McGuire does an excellent job in the voice acting department, ditto for Mick Lally as Brother Aiden

Brendan’s friend Aisling gets a bit under-characterized I think. She has a fair amount of screen time, but for some reason I never totally got sense of her character. But then again, fairies are supposed to be mysterious and indecipherable so I suppose it’s fitting. Christen Mooney does a great job voicing her as well, especially when she performs “Aisling’s Song” a brief but haunting melody that will stick in your head for weeks.

Now, remember last week when I was talking about tension between Christian ideologies and older pagan beliefs? This movie has that in droves, I mean hell it’s set when that struggle was still going on. Brendan quickly makes friends with Aisling (pronounced Ashlynn), a fairy who lives in the woods outside Kells. His friendship with her further underscores the rapidly increasing gulf between Brendan and his pious uncle.

But a far more interesting bit of subtext comes in later in the movie. In order to complete the book, Brendan must recover an artifact called the Eye of Collum-Cille, a crystalline lens that can only be taken from one place: the eye of Cromm Cruach. Who is Cromm Cruach you ask? Long story.

Essentially before Christianity was thing in Ireland, the most prominent pagan idol was Cromm Cruach. That of course all changed when St. Patrick showed up and destroyed all the Pagan idols and said it was Christianity or bust for the Irish. You know how they say St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland? Basically that’s a metaphor for driving out pagan idol-worship. “Coincidentally”, Cromm Cruach is kinda snake-like in the movie.

Now, back up and consider the subtext here. The eye of a pagan idol is a vital tool for completing an incredibly important Christian text. That, kiddies, is what we call some ballsy subtext. Cromm Cruach is a figure of menace and darkness in the film, but also one who is vital to creating a future of understanding and knowledge, which the creation of the book is said to represent. Paganism and Christianity working in tandem to create a new future for Ireland? Once again, I see what you did there.

If I have one complaint about the movie it’s the slightly lackluster ending. We get a really beautiful animation sequence to play us out, but I wouldn’t mind a more in-depth denouement to give us more closure on the characters.

That aside, The Secret of Kells is a fantastic movie, well deserving of its Oscar nomination for best animated film in ’09. If you want to see some fantastic animation and a more than decent story, you can do far worse.

If you’re still undecided, give the trailer a gander

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  • correction: it was set in 800AD, not  800 BC.  (Christianity, nor the gospels, nor the book of Kells did not exist in 800BC)

  • Well, at least you got to this fine film 3 years later….

    A real gem.

    • Had to get to it some time I guess 😛 I wouldn’t even have seen it yet if I hadn’t written a paper on Irish folklore in film, truth be told….

  • I think Tomm Moore is working in the tradition of Irish folktales, which have often blended stories of saints and fairies. My opinion is that the fairy elements in the story work well given the context, and it is the Catholic faith that has the last word.

  • The animation style took a bit to get used to when I first watched Song of the Sea, but anything is sweeter with a young Irish accent.

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