May 17, 2013

"The Secret of Kells"

        Back in March our family watched "The Secret of Kells," an animated movie that came out in 2009 but which I'd only heard of in 2011, and didn't get around to watching until now.  We're a little behind the times, I guess.  At any rate, we enjoyed it, and found it refreshingly different from some of the more typical commercial animated movies.
        The plot is the story of how Brendan, a young boy at the Abbey of Kells, helps an older illuminator complete the Book of Kells, under the threat of Viking attacks, a dark pagan god, and the overprotective wrath of his uncle the abbot.  It certainly falls under the category of fantasy, with the involvement not only of the aforementioned god Crom Cruach, but also a magical forest spirit named Aisling.  But it could also be called a fantasia on the theme of Celtic illumination.
        The most noteworthy aspect of the movie is its visual style.  Heavily influenced by eighth century Celtic art, the scenes include design elements not only from the incredible illuminated pages of the Book of Kells, but also from other Celtic sources
such as the Insular style Ardagh Chalice and the La Téne style carved Turoe stone.  Notice, for example, the interlacing of the branches in the forest and how the snowflakes are all little Celtic knots.  Backgrounds include patterns of swirling spirals and interlacing, characters are heavily stylized, and the entire layout is drawn in a flat, perpective-less style.  I think there were times when it was too heavily stylized, especially for the kids, so that it was actually a little difficult to tell what we were looking at.  Also, the Vikings were rendered as such simple, stylized shapes that we called them yaks instead of Vikings!  But there's no doubt that the whole thing is a visual delight, immersive and beautiful to look at.  Indeed, one of the high points of the entire movie comes at the very end when the designs from actual pages from the Book of Kells are shown coming to life and moving.
        Having lived in Ireland for a year as a child, I've retained a particular interest in Irish history and culture, and my parents and I enjoyed the movie even more because of our recognition of certain elements.  For example, remembering our visits to real round towers with their doors built high up in the walls for protection brought an anchor of reality to a story that must seem wholly dream-like to P and T.  Plus, it's always fun to listen to the Irish accents for an hour.
        Because this is a relatively short movie (75 minutes) and because it's so stylized instead of photo-realistic, it should be okay for children of 8, but it's not without some pretty tense moments.  Also, between the accents and the sometimes surreal storytelling, younger children might not get much out of it.  It's probably more enjoyable for 10 and up, and may be one of those things that adults are actually going to like better than children.  P and T enjoyed it, but my parents enjoyed it even more!  I definitely recommend it for anyone with an interest in Irish history, art, and mythology.
        (You can see the official trailer here.)

[Pictures: Brendan and Aisling in the forest;
Abbot Cellach in front of the round tower;
Brendan and Aidan of Iona in the scriptorium, stills from "The Secret of Kells," art director Ross Stewart (images from]


  1. One of my favorites movies! Such a treat to see Celtic art come alive.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Lynn-Marie. And may I just say that Gildersleeve is a magnificent name - I'm filing it away for possible future use in a story!