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Great Films for Kids: The Secret of Kells

March 6, 2015 9:05 am | 13 Comments

If the world is going to ruin, what is the purpose of creating beautiful things? That’s a question you might find interwoven in the plot of an art film aimed at adults. But here it is in a movie for kids. And it’s better expressed here than in many other works, precisely because the simplicity and purity of the story allows the art to speak for itself.

The Secret of Kells is one of the most beautifully animated films of the past decade. Directed by Irish animator Tomm Moore, it’s a retelling of the origins of the Book of Kells.

The plot: Brendan is a twelve-year-old boy being brought up in the walled Abbey of Kells by his uncle, the stern abbot. The threat of invasion by Norsemen hangs heavily over the community. The abbot leads the way as monks and laymen work feverishly to build a wall to keep invaders out. Outside the abbey there are hints that the dark side of Irish paganism may not be altogether banished from the land.

And then Brother Aidan arrives with his book and cat.

kells

Brother Aidan is an illuminator who escaped from the community of Iona after it was sacked by the Vikings. He brings tales of St. Columcille as well as the unfinished Book of Iona, an elaborate and beautiful book of the gospels. Brendan is fascinated by the work of illumination and is soon assisting Aidan despite opposition from his uncle.

The Abbot cannot see the worth in creating art while the threat of invasion is urgently at hand. He discourages work on the book, deeming it a distraction. But Brendan and Brother Aidan persist, even getting assistance from a forest spirit, Aisling.

In traditional Irish and English folklore, spirits and fairies are beings that fall somewhere between humans and demons. They certainly aren’t Christian, but some of them are benevolent to a degree. Aisling is a benevolent spirit. She doesn’t quite understand what the humans are doing, but she’s willing to help. She’s also willing to put herself in danger to protect Brendan from evil spirits and Viking marauders.

Hand-drawn animation has all-but disappeared from the American movie world. Tomm Moore seems determined to show the unique possibilities of the genre. The perspective of the world in The Secret of Kells is flattened, as if all of the action were playing out upon a literal page. The character design and backgrounds are inspired by Celtic illuminations and art; the motion suggested by the intricate knotted and scrolling artwork in the Book of Kells is here interpreted on screen in animated form unlike any other movie I’ve seen. Moore knows just how to subvert expectations and break the conventions of traditional animation in order to give freshness and newness to 2D animation. Despite being discarded in favor of 3D computer animation by most studios, traditional hand-drawn still has the ability to make you gasp in wonder, especially when handled by such a masterful director.

It’s only at the very end of the film when, along with the now aged Abbot, we are allowed a glimpse of the full beauty of the Book. The magnificent Chi-Rho page fills the screen and comes alive, a bridge across the centuries demonstrating that artistic beauty has the ability to transcend time and place.

(Note: this movie does include a few intense scenes of implied violence. My kids did okay with these, but if you have sensitive little ones, maybe watch it first to check if they can handle it.)

The Secret of Kells is available on DVD/BluRay as well as on many streaming services. You can read my review of Tomm Moore’s second film, The Song of the Sea, here at the Ignatius Press Novels blog as well. If you want a child’s perspective on it: for quite a while The Secret of Kells was my six-year-old daughter’s favorite movie, but The Song of the Sea has now been awarded that honor.

Homeschool art idea: After watching this movie the first time I went online and found a number of coloring pages based on the Book of Kells. The book itself is also digitized and can be viewed here (may take a while to load). We looked at the images of the actual book and then printed and colored the pages. These stayed up as decoration for St. Patrick’s Day and beyond!

John Herreid

John Herreid

John Herreid is catalog manager at Ignatius Press. In addition to catalogs and ads, he has also worked on the cover design for many Ignatius Press books and DVDs. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and four children. You can also find his writing on his personal site at herreid.org.

Tags: animation great films for kids movie reviews The Secret of Kells

13 Comments

  1. March 6, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    The animation and drawing remind me of “Samaurai Jack”…

  2. March 7, 2015 at 2:51 pm

    WHere is the price

    • March 9, 2015 at 6:39 am

      Hi, Shelia–note that the movie is not in our catalog. This is just a Novel Thoughts contributor’s independent review.

  3. March 7, 2015 at 8:44 pm

    As beautiful and well animated as this movie is its pretty unChristian. It SOME HOW *given the subject matter and setting* pretty much completely removes the Godly element and replaces it with spiritism. Its kind of irritating to see this on here as some sort of positive Catholic friendly kids movie, I’m fairly alright when it comes to watching fantasy with sprites and fairys what not in it, but this movie made me really uncomfortable. It blended and faded Catholicism in exchange for celtic occultic lore.

  4. March 13, 2015 at 9:07 am

    We agree with the above comment. Not “Catholic” –. New-age for sure. Our children won’t be watching this.

  5. […] fairies and angels, monsters and missionaries comingle in stories and legend. His first film, The Secret of Kells, is a fanciful and wondrous imagining of the creation of the Book of Kells. His second, Song of the […]

  6. John Herreid

    March 13, 2015 at 9:25 am

    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. Like with other movies or books we’ve read and watched together that involve old legends and mythology, I don’t leave it to my kids to parse out what is real—we discuss it so they don’t get confused.

  7. March 13, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Our culture needs these kind of movies. Desperately. Not those feel-good christian movies (God’s Not Dead comes to mind). Secret of the Kells was hauntingly beautiful. Both the story, music, and animation were masterfully crafted. The obvious Catholic themes are not “in-your-face,” but woven into the settings and characters. They don’t need to tell you that they are Catholic monks, because it’s obvious that is what they are. I cried a bit in the scenes where Brendan is reading the illuminated scripture to his fellow countryman, showing them the light and hope that it brings. It was all beautiful.

  8. John Herreid

    March 13, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    I agree, Rosalie! I also liked how the monks were a diverse group (from Italy, Ireland, and Africa), a subtle way of showing that Christianity is a universal religion.

  9. March 16, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    I, for one, as a Catholic Christian who has worked with youth, children & families for over a decade would highly recommend Secret of the Book of Kells. Also, my wife and I have six children of our own, this movie has become a family favorite. I am very excited to check out Tomm Moore’s new film, when it arrives for sale or streaming to the states. If you get a chance to get the DVD or Blu-Ray with the behind the scenes (Secret of the Book of Kells), its very worth watching. My children were even captivated by the behind the scenes interviews because everything is done with such integrity and class. It deeply saddens me when Irish (or cultural) folklore is perceived, received or represented as “New Age- so my kids won’t see it!”… For one, even going for my now 18yr old daughter, our kids watch nothing we haven’t pre-approved, especially cartoons because a lot of them are insidious and toxic with the messages they send. Tomm Moore’s (SOTBOK) movie is not at all being insidious but is showing in a fantastical way how Christianity came and was preserved in Ireland. The single cell animation, is so breathtaking, even my Swedish friend who loves his (VIKING HERITAGE) had to concede to it being a fantastic film. And the beauty of the message we were able to share with our children was how even though in paganism, God was preparing the heart of the Irish people to receive the message of the Gospel, and to preserve it in an incredible way. Even Aisling, the spirit of the “old ways” is recognizing the need of this book (The Gospels) to bring a “better light” to Ireland. So many of the Celtic monastics believed that there were already preparations within traditional folk-religion, that were preparing the way for the Gospel to be received and lead one of the most influential mission movements of the Catholic Church. This is a movie that will stir up powerful conversations between you and your kids. My kids could clearly discern, and some though our teaching and instruction, that this was not a praise of paganism movie or the new promo trailer for Wicca. This was a movie that the whole family has seen multiple times and will continue to. I cannot judge someone’s intentions in parenting, but I will say, as a parent who worked with parents… I have and continue to recommend this film. Thanks, John, for the Solid Review.

    • John Herreid

      March 16, 2015 at 5:14 pm

      Thanks for the great comment, Joel! I think you’ll really enjoy his latest movie as well.

  10. […] If the world is going to ruin, what is the purpose of creating beautiful things? That’s a question you might find interwoven in the plot of an art film aimed at adults. But here it is in a movie fo…  […]

  11. […] we first watched Tomm Moore’s The Secret of Kells together, my kids were enthralled. We went online after the movie ended and looked at the images of […]

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