By Marc Bauer
Cinema is no stranger to films about the creation of art. We’ve seen the subject matter vary wildly and in style. There have been films about food (Ratatouille, Big Night) , about music (Amadeus, Mr. Holland’s Opus), about writing; both of books (Wonder Boys, The Shining) and of plays (Shakespeare in Love, The Producers). There have been movies about artists that cover the range from revered (The Agony and The Ecstasy, Lust for Life) to the recent (Pollock, Basquiat) and the irreverent (American Splendor, Crumb). We’ve experienced movies about making movies, done both serious (Sullivan’s Travels, Ed Wood) and comedic (Be Kind Rewind, Son of Rambow). There are even films about creating animation (Frank and Ollie, Waking Sleeping Beauty). Yet, for all the myriad mentions of creation as the story devise, I cannot recall a single film about the making of an illuminated manuscript; until now.
The Secret of Kells is that movie; a film that delves into the creation of the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is one of the most famous Illuminated Manuscripts, and the most celebrated example of Insular Art. The book itself is something mere words cannot describe, which in a way, is fortuitous. If words were tools capable of the task of describing this book, perhaps The Secret of Kells would not have been made. The film itself, with the use of visual vocabulary, attempts to describe the book, but truly focuses more on the story surrounding its creation.
The story is centered on a small Irish village named Kells, The Abbot (voiced be Brendan Gleason) tasked with protecting the village, his nephew Brendan (voiced be new comer Evan McGuire) and a Master Illuminator Aiden (voiced by Irish Actor Mick Lally). Aiden arrives to Kells , escaping capture by Viking enemies, and settles in to work on the manuscript through the winter. Seeing young Brendan and his interest in illumination, he soon tasks the boy in assisting him, to the chagrin of the Abbot. While on his travels to fulfill the tasks, Brendan encounters some minor obstacles and allies, all out of Irish folklore.
The story is that of a classic faerie tale, it is a simple tale that isn’t burdened with layers of secondary stories, filler scenes and musical numbers; this is both good and bad. The good aspects of this film FAR outweigh the negative. The story hits the ground, stumbles a bit, but takes off in at a good clip. The brief falter at the beginning is easily dismissed once the story takes stride, and by the twenty minute mark, roughly a third of the way into the movie, you’ve already forgotten about the misstep. The same thing that is a positive, is also negative; without the additional layers we’ve grown accustomed to in so many animated films, the film is almost short. You leave the viewing wanting more.
The simplicity of the story is the perfect delivery for the visuals. The Insular artwork is highlighted fabulously throughout the film. The famous Celtic knot work is used to perfection, dancing and wending around the screen with whimsy. The character design is worth noting. The lack of heavy lines framing the character seem to exist within the visual vocabulary of Genndy Tartakovsky, best known for Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack. While not unique, it is a wonderful use of style; by not outlining the characters, they don’t stand apart from, but instead as part of the world they inhabit. Similar to the Illuminated Manuscript they are working on, they exist as part of the story they tell. It is also a traditional, hand-drawn animated film, a style used less and less frequently these days. The images are so elaborate; it is easy to forget that nothing is done by computer.
The voices of the characters of Abbot and Aiden are nothing special, Irish actors with comforting brogues; it is the unknown providing the voice of Brendan that shines. Evan McGuire brings to the character a sense of wonderment and naïveté that you feel. Every time he experiences something new, it is as if you are experiencing it with him for the first time.
The negatives in this film are few, if any. The brevity of the film is the biggest qualm I have with the movie. At seventy-five minutes, inclusive of credits, it is on the short side. The film assumes a familiarity with Irish folklore, and no explanation is given for some of the creatures you see, but it doesn’t detract. In fact, it leaves the uninitiated curious to learn more about Irish folklore.
As an animated film, many will assume it is a children’s movie, and won’t give it the fair consideration it deserves. While children will enjoy it, our own inner child will be filled with the amazement that cinema so rarely delivers. You owe it to yourself to watch this film.