Previously: The Illusionist
What is it?
Loosely based around the creation of the real book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript, the story follows Brendan, a curious boy living in the Abbey of Kells. He is interested in the art of illumination and is an apprentice at the Abbey's scriptorium, but he would also like to go outside. He is not allow to though, because his uncle, Abbot Cellach, won't let anyone outside the walls of Kells. Cellach is obsessed with the fortifications he's building around the Abbey in order to protect it from Viking invasion. To the Abbot, Brendan's passion is merely a distraction from what's important.
The Secret of Kells is an Irish-French-Belgian film, directed by first-timer Irish illustrator Tomm Moore, and written by French scenarist Fabrice Ziolkowski.
How is it?
As I often do in this particular column, I shall say very nice things about the look of the film. The sets are designed with simple shapes, but quite often there's an added richness to the background that makes it look interesting. The colours are vibrant, particularly when Brendan ventures into the forest. In general, the characters move on a pretty flat environment that is not dissimilar to pages of an illuminated manuscript. Since perspective was not invented yet at the time when the film's action takes place, the filmmakers chose to adapt their drawings to the way the medieval monks decorated the manuscripts.
This gives us a movie which looks like no other, whether it's in the small lyrical moments or in the most dramatic action scenes, the colour and composition are always well used and serve the plot perfectly.
Unfortunately, I saw one minor flaw in the look of The Secret of Kells: the perspective-less aspect of it is so pure and fresh, that I found the rare use of CG animation distracting. It could as easily have been traditional animation and feels out of place in this otherwise gorgeous movie.
The music by French composer Bruno Coulais (Coraline) and Irish group Kíla is also quite wonderful, and its Celtic quality helps immerse you into the world even more. Aisling's Song, in particular, caught my ear.
Given the subject matter, the story could easily have been more focused on the religious aspect than the rest, but thankfully that's not the case. What resonates most from the film is its likeable characters and message. The Secret of Kells is about survival and the importance of transmission, and it's told to us in a simple, sincere manner.
The pace is voluntarily quite slow, as the film takes its time to introduce the important characters. Yet, at certain points, the action takes over and catches you off guard; one moment you are lost in the beauty of the backgrounds, the next you're scared of what might happen to Brendan. The last action sequence is, in this way, particularly epic and memorable - even more so knowing how little the budget for this film was.
There are some resolutions that I thought could have been more satisfying, but overall the script is very good.
Tomm Moore delivers a very solid first movie here. The Secret of Kells deserves to be seen for its beautiful design, music, and simple yet meaningful message.
Despite some flaws it's a great piece of art, and I give it a thumb up.