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A Secret Worth Learning


                Seeing as I loved Song of the Sea so much, I was very excited to check out the earlier debut film from the same studio and director Tomm Moore, The Secret of Kells. The film was made in 2009 and like its follow-up borrows heavily in style and theme from Irish folklore and mythology, in this case centring on the creation of the Book of Kells somewhere around the 8th century. I had the chance to see the Book on a visit to Trinity College, Dublin and it really is a stunning work of art and literature.
                The plot revolves around a boy Brendan, who lives in the Monastery of Kells, and is a scripting apprentice to Brother Aidan who’s working on an already famously illuminating text called the Book of Iona. Though he’s constantly monitored by his strict and somewhat paranoid uncle the monastery’s Abbot Cellach, Brendan ventures into the woods beyond their land for a berries to use for ink, and while there meets a fairy of the forest called Aisling. But there is a darkness in the forest as well as the impending threat from foreign pillagers that endangers the completion of the book.
                One of the things I admire most is how this film integrated the religious and the mythical into an overall secular film but still one that’s pleasing to scribes of both concepts. The Book of Kells is a very religious, very Christian document but there aren’t a lot of overt references to Christianity apart from the setting and situation of the characters and story. The mythical elements get a little more due as they’re less commonly known, but a fair bit of those call-outs are ambiguous. They come together very well and this world where such conflicting thoughts coexist is believable; in spite of the fact that many of the mythological aspects belong to pagan religions before the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. The film quite clearly isn’t about the content of the Book of Kells (it’s basically the Gospels with commentary) but the calligraphy and visual beauty of the text. And because of this and the focus on the creation of the symbols and Celtic designs expressed in the book, it makes sense that there wouldn’t be as much of a religious emphasis. Perhaps it could have benefitted from some, as religiously focussed animated films can work (just look at The Prince of Egypt!), but the film balanced it nicely and there was more than enough symbolism especially towards the end (we now know what Irish Jesus would look like). The Celtic style and folklore is really fascinating. Like in Song of the Sea it really shines and elevates the film into a greater fantastic realm. That being said and maybe because of the medieval setting as a backdrop for the story, some concepts and references aren’t explained or elaborated on enough to be as accessible as they could be. If you don’t know much about Crom Cruach or Colm Cille (St. Columba), those references and a plot point or two may be lost on you. But honestly the film is so creative and compelling that something like that doesn’t matter. Despite being rooted in an actual occurrence, the film takes liberties and is actually a very original story! And it takes turns you wouldn’t expect. For the most part it maintains a tone of wonder and exploration, but it goes dark in some places really not shying away from one of the most brutal aspects of the time period. Particularly related to those pillagers I mentioned earlier there’s a sequence in the later part of the movie that’s some of the darkest stuff I’ve seen in a family friendly animated film since The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
                Brendan is not as interesting a protagonist as Ben in Song of the Sea and doesn’t make a great impact. He’s far from being a dull character though as in some scenes feels genuine in his actions and conclusions. But mostly I feel he’s the audience surrogate experiencing with us the interest in his work and amazement at the magical world. He’s not an entirely consistent character either, as he has bouts of bravery that don’t seem to come from anywhere in particular apart from his faith and desire to finish the Book. I connected far more with Aisling who in addition to being such a wonderful looking figure, she acted like a child of her apparent age would in the circumstances. She’s distrustful but fun-loving, fearful, and a little bit eccentric as many girls would be, she just happens to have power over a forest. Anytime she was on screen interacting with Brendan was tremendous. We get some other good characters too. Aidan though a little bit the stock mentor figure is interesting in that he’s fairly powerless in the grand scheme. He is subservient to Cellach despite his fame and in his encouragement of Brendan to break rules for the good of the book, we feel more the risk as it’s on him too. But he’s so passionate about what he does it’s hard to fault him for endangering Brendan’s freedom. And he passes that passion on. Cellach himself voiced by Brendan Gleeson who is guaranteed to be in every Irish movie, is also somewhat a stock obstacle authoritarian character but he gets some great moments where we see that he actually does care about Brendan and his safety, as well as the safety of the monastery. There’s actually some good reason behind his paranoia as we see later in the film. And while his punishments of Brendan may be unkind, he’s still a fairly sympathetic character.
                The greatest character of all though is the animation. Again, this animation is breathtaking! The Celtic folkloric influences are clear and wonderfully enticing, and it challenges perception of art and perspective. The cultural uniqueness as well as the stylistic surreality and overarching magic draw parallels with the works of Miyazaki. It’s strange, it’s imaginative, it’s superbly detailed, and it’s beautiful. Just like the Book of Kells itself. Song of the Sea because of the nature of its story had much more variance in characters and environments allowing a lot more scenes to feel fresh and offer a wider range of what the art form can do. But there were still a fair few wow moments in The Secret of Kells; I’m just glad to see they really improved upon it for the latter film. As for now I’m certainly not tired of the style. In the future maybe some changes should be made but I still adore it. It still reinvigorates my faith in the art of animation (this, Song of the Sea, Inside Out, Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, etc. I’ve been finding all the greats!)
                The Secret of Kells isn’t quite as good as Song of the Sea, but is perhaps the best first film from an animation studio and director I’ve ever seen! It’s gorgeous, brilliantly told and composed, and a delight; a magical original experience unlike so many of the kind we’ve been getting lately (we may have had Inside Out but we also had Minions recently). I love Cartoon Saloon which is so weird to say, and I love Tomm Moore. I’m really looking forward to whatever he does next! And with The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea to his credit, I hope people really take note, and he and his films get the recognition and widespread appreciation they deserve!

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