Remember when you were a kid and all animated films looked different? How a Don Bluth film looked different to a Disney film which looked different to anything produced in the UK such as The BFG? These days we have anime style films and American films influenced by anime. Pixar sail their own animation design boat but largely Disney and Dreamworks churn out some pretty similar looking stuff. Thematically they’re pretty similar too rarely wrestling with anything more complex than teenage angst and fear. Last time Disney itself tried anything really thematically strong was The Hunchback Of Notre Damme and that didn’t do too well for them. It’s because of the lack of daring in the world of animation that when a animated feature comes along that does look and feel different it gains a whole load of attention. One such film that managed this was the Secret Of Kells.
Secret of Kells is about a young lad named Brendan living in a abbey ruled by his uncle the Abbot Cellech who’s obsession with building a giant wall around his abbey to protect them from an impending Viking attack leaves Brendan neglected. Brendan has never been outside the walls of the abbey as, because of his uncle, he believes there to be nothing but danger beyond them. He passes time when not working on the wall with a group of multicultural illusionary scribes who’s duties of writing have been sidelined in favour of hard labor. One day a master illuminator called Aiden arrives in the town and begins to enthuse Brendan with tales of the world outside and the mysteries of an ancient book that Aiden is the keeper of. Aiden enlists Brendan to help him complete the book by convincing him to head out to the forest to gather berries to make ink with and so begins Brendan’s adventure.
Upon leaving the forest Brendan is scared by pretty much everything the forest has to offer and then besieged by a pack of Wolves. Not the most successful trip into the woods. He is saved by a fairy named Aisling, not your typical wings and wand fairy though. Aisling is a woodland shapeshifting magical incantation breed of fairy. Think more Mystic Meg than Tinkerbell. She’s not annoying like Mystic Meg though. Or anything like her. She’s just no like Tinkerbell I guess is what I’m trying to get across. You get the impression she’s lived there for years, maybe centuries, all on her own. She refers to the forest as her forest and considering all the animals seem to do as she says I’d say it’s hers.
The film doesn’t really have any major quest for Brendan to go on. it’s largely a series of events leading to the inevitable attack from the Vikings. Brendan spends his time learning how to write and draw and gradually gains the confidence and the bravery to defy his uncle. There is adventures to be had but they are more of the short to the point kind, such as a journey into an evil cave to retrieve a crystal. the story is more about the concept of perceived fear and what man does to shield itself from it. The whole way through the film everyone, including the Abbot, acknowledges that the giant wall they’re building will not stop the Vikings. It’s maybe more a symbolic structure for the villagers to show that they will not just let their homes be taken. When the Vikings do arrive they certainly do not get held back for long by their defenses.
Visually the film is exceptionally unique. the only animation I can think to compare it to is Samurai Jack. It uses a lot of traditional Celtic design, the sort you’d see in medieval manuscripts and history books. Even going as far to use a lot of the illogically forced perspectives that were predominant in the art of the time, for example an overhead view of the abbey shows the middle tower to be pointing north rather than looked down on from above. The animation is very smooth and a lot of care has clearly gone into the visual design. The Vikings in particular are striking in their dehumanised form. They appear as if they are giant half man half Ox creatures, their language full of demonic rumbling tones and their red eyes show no signs of humanity.They are the abbey’s villagers physical manifestation of fear of the outside world.
The film isn’t afraid to be dark either. There’s death, demonic evils and talk of lost families. One scene uses a very simple cut out frame of some stairs collapsing with silhouettes of villagers falling to depict the death of what appears to be around 100 people. It’s carried out in a manner that makes sure it sticks in your mind. It also shows that the Abbot himself does genuinely care for his people despite working them to the bone. He wanted to protect them all but was unprepared for the horrors the Vikings would bring. Unlike many other films this invasion doesn’t lead to some sort of revenge by the main characters or an attempt to stop the Vikings. these people aren’t warriors and there’s no attempt to make them seem that way. The Secret Of Kells isn’t that traditional a film to allow itself to have the normal satisfying good defeats evil conclusion.It’s all the better for it in my opinion.
Overall this is a film well deserving of it’s best animated picture Oscar nomination. I wouldn’t have givien it the award but it certainly should have been there. Up won the best animated film award that year, personally Up should have won best picture and Fantastic Mr Fox should have gotten best animated. If The Secret Of Kells has any issues it’s that it’s short runtime stops many of it’s themes and plot threads being explored more fully. If Brendans small adventures had taken more of a series of trials feel to them then I think it would have been a little more engaging. Also his relationship with Aisling is very basic and there isn’t enough of her in the film. She could have done with being more tied into his character arc inside the walls of the abbey. It’s still a stunning film to view and whilst it’s short at 75 minutes it’s packed with memorable sequences and and imagery unlike anything else being produced in animation these days.