Imported from Ireland, France and Belgium, "The Secret of Kells" raised quite a few eyebrows when it won a slot in the Best Animated Feature category at this year's Oscars, beating out better-known contenders such as "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" and "9." (I would have loved to see one of my favorite animated films of last year, the still-underrated "Sita Sings the Blues," get a nod.) Now, finally "The Secret of Kells" is making its way into theaters around the country, and audiences can see what persuaded Academy voters. ("Up" ultimately took home the Oscar.)
"Kells" is an account of how the Book of Kells, an illuminated tome containing the four Gospels of the New Testament, came to be. It's 9th-century Ireland, and the stern Abbot Cellach (voiced by Brendan Gleeson, who I kept thinking was Colin Farrell) is on a one-track mission to protect the monastery known as the Abbey of Kells from a Viking invasion. While he has the people build a wall to protect them, his young nephew Brendan (Evan McGuire) has desires to be a master illuminator like the celebrated Aidan of Iona (Mick Lally), who shows up with the ancient, unfinished book after Iona gets a Viking once-over.
When Aidan needs inkberries to finish the book, Brendan goes outside to the big, bad forest - accompanied by Aidan's disapproving cat, Pangur Ban (look it up!) - to get them. He almost gets ravaged by rabid wolves but is saved by Aisling (Christen Mooney), a shape-shifting fairy of a young girl who shows him the beauty of the forest.
With a plot you almost need a degree in Celtic mythology to follow, characters with thick Irish brogues spouting mythical terms I could probably understand if I were into that stuff, and extravagant 2-D animation filling every nook and cranny of the screen, "The Secret of Kells" may be the busiest animated feature I've seen in a while. I'm still trying to figure out if that's a good thing.
Co-writer/director Tomm Moore goes for an alert, visual rambunctiousness in the animation, which while quite grand and vivid in scope, always teeters on the verge of being, well, too much. Just the sight of Aisling popping in and out of frame may get on your nerves after a while. And the occasionally intense subject matter - with Brendan stepping into surreal bouts of danger once he's in the forest and the ever-looming threat of the bloodthirsty Vikings - could very well make your little kids break out into crying jags if you take them to it. (If your kids are unfazed by the violence of the "Grand Theft Auto" video games, you can take them.)
However, something in the "Kells" narrative surprised me: It shares an ideology with Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds." Just like that movie, "Kells" extols the importance of art in times of war and massacre. It uses the Book of Kells as a persevering symbol of aesthetic, cultural preservation, an item to cherish as time passes and the horror of genocide fades. (It's currently on display at the Trinity College Library in Dublin.)
In that aspect, "Kells" delivers in presenting a message that the pen - or in this case, the quill - will always be mightier than the sword.
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