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.
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!