The Beauty of Kells

I recently had the immese pleasure to finally see the film that snuck up on the 2010 Best Animated Film Oscar category:  The Secret of Kells. At the time I was torn between the nominees, having seen Coraline, Up, and Princess and the Frog.  In the end, I sided with the winning film, yet had I known of this film and taken the time then to partake of it, I would have shifted allegiance here.  Please know that I am a huge Disney fan and a bigger Pixar fan, but this film was absolutely beautiful.  It pushed the lines of artistic expression, giving us something new and fresh, and most importantly it gave me a wonderful display of non-American storytelling.  Lacking most of the Classical Hollywood stylistic element, The Secret of Kells stands out as a beautiful work of art that was a joy to watch.

First a little history:  The film tells a dramatized and stylistic version of the creation of the Book of Kells, an Irish national treasure that today resides at Trinity College in Dublin.  The Book itself is an Illuminated Gospel book written in Latin (it reflects the Vulgate in that sense).  Created in 800 AD by Celtic monks, it was most likely formed at the Island provence of Iona off Scoland’s coast. Just as the film says, it was written there and was moved to the Abbey of Kells where it resided for most of the medieval period.  Viking attacks might not have required this move, but they almost certainly influenced it as it was in the last decade of the 8th century that they began their pillaging.

It was at the Abbey of Kells that the illumination of the manuscript happened, thus the work being labeled after it.  It follows the traditional guidelines for an illuminated text, particularly the Insular Art style which was most common in those Island states.  Primarily composed of circular and spiral (or triskelion) motifs, the Insular art formed the first letter of the first sentence of the page as well as adding borders and frill to the work.  It was designed to do for the gaze what the words did to one’s reason – guide them to God.  As mentioned previously, the Book now resides at the Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland.  It stands as proud testament to the rich history of the Celtic lands as well as to the rise and growth of the Christian faith and Scholasticism in the first millennium.

Going off that, I love how the filmmakers tell this story with Illumination as subject AND as the medium of the storytelling. The movie really is a piece of artwork which is a wonderful realization of the magic and beauty of that form of illustration.  The director Tomm Moore did a fantastic job of crafting the visual style to literally reflect the content and story, and Cartoon Saloon – who produced the animation itself – obviously did their homework and created a gorgeous narrative picture.  While I was watching it I couldn’t help but be drawn to recall all of my favorite Cartoon Network shows (Johnny Bravo, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Dexter’s Laboratory, Cow & Chicken, Sheep in the Big City, etc).  I did a bit of research and found that Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack was a prominent influence on this film.  The stylisms and minimalist focus are clearly evident in both Tartakovsky’s Futuristic Samurai show and in The Secret of Kells, and beautifully juxtaposes the ornateness of the illumination.

Another element I loved about the story telling was the distinctly non-Hollywood themes and structure.  One of the first title cards clearly states that this is a “France-Belgium-Ireland” production and the elements of those cultures show themselves proudly.  What was particularly cool was that it didn’t follow the typical Three-Act structure.  Rather than having clear turning points of each plot point, the film fits more into the classical “fable” structure – narrative focused on a moral point. The intent is to teach lessons rather than to be the most realistic and true to life.  It was refreshing to take in some non-American storytelling after a long semester of studying just that.

What also was really neat about the foreignness of the film was the diverse history from which the story draws.  While the United States have been getting better about learning world culture, there is still a vast amount of it that we don’t normally get.  So, learning a bit of the history of old Ireland along with some background on the growth of my own religion was absolutely fantastic.  But what struck me as the greatest thing was that the filmmakers pay homage to the traditional beliefs of Old Ireland while still showing the blessings of Christianity.  Aisling, the woodland faerie who aids Brenden, acts as a symbol for the ancient Celtic Mythology and the former beliefs.  While the Book of Kells is a version of the Christian Gospels and it is supposed to come and “bring light to the darkness”, what the filmmakers beautifully do is allow the girl to continue existing.  She is not eliminated  tramped over, or made into a villain, but rather stands simply as a reminder of the times gone by. This wonderfully depicts a rising of a culture not on top of the other so as to squash it out of existence, but rather as the next step in our journey towards truth.

Finally (and how could I not make note of this), the music is absolutely amazing!  The themes for both Brenden and Aisling were both beautifully incorporated into the distinctly Irish score. I loved hearing the Celtic guitar pieces and the hauntingly sweet song Aisling sings to Panger Bum (the cat) struck a chord in my soul and gave me goosebumps.  Overall I would say the score is just as beautiful as the visual style and plot, and would highly recommend you look it up on iTunes sometime.

Overall this was a gorgeously crafted piece of art that I would HIGHLY RECOMMEND to anyone. While I don’t know that younger audiences would appreciate the reasoning behind some of the moments and styles, I think they could still enjoy the narrative and the artwork, as well as the fun and engaging characters.  This film rightly deserved it’s nomination amongst the Academy Awards Best Animated Feature list and, were it not placed amongst such tough competition, I would nigh on say that it should have won said Oscar.  The Secret of Kells was a beautiful film that was an absolute joy to watch and I really hope you take the time to stop and enjoy this wonderful piece of art.

Final Rating:  10//10

From the Book of Kells -- Celtic Chi Rho: A Symbol for Christ

Hope you enjoyed this review of The Secret of Kells.  Speaking of animated movies set with Celtic Backgrounds – shameless self-promotion – check back tomorrow on the Art of the Trailer for my review of the trailer for Brave!  Until then, let me know what you thought in the comment below and I will see you tomorrow!

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Author: Tyler D. Welch

Filmmaker, Storyteller, Scholar

3 thoughts on “The Beauty of Kells”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your review. This film is truly a Tour-de-force, paying homage to the even more remarkable beauty that exists within the book of Kells. Thanks for promoting this film as you do, as it is one of my personal favorites.

  2. Reblogged this on Andrew B Lang and commented:
    This is a review on one of my all-time favorite animated feature films, The Secret of Kells, written by Soontobeangel. I couldn’t have reviewed this film better myself. The stills in the post show the beauty of the animation-style for this film brilliantly. Read-on and marvel!

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