Uncovering the “Secret of the Kells” – A Beautifully Crafted Animated Gem
I had the chance to see the animated feature film myself (originally titled Brendan and the Secret of Kells) at the Dobie Theater in Austin, TX a few years back. It was my first and last time at the Dobie because shortly after it closed. I remember it well because the theater was located in a small arcade (mall) near the University of Texas campus along with a comic book store boasting a full-size replica of Han Solo frozen in carbonite and a place that still sold VHS tapes… it was pretty badass.
The Secret of Kells is centered around the adventures of a boy named Brendan who is the ward and nephew of Abbot Cellach (voiced by Brendan Gleeson who also starred in 28 Days Later and played Mad Eyed Moody in the Harry Potter films), the leader of a small village called Kells. The abbot is obsessed with the completion of a large wall that is under construction to keep out barbarians, Vikings, and other unsavory types.
Things start to go amiss when a new face shows up in town and turns Brendan’s attentions away from working on his uncle’s project. Brendan is soon on his first adventure beyond the walls of his village, running errands for the newcomer, during which he encounters hungry wolves and creatures of Irish myth: Celtic pagan gods and “fae,” some of which are mysterious and friendly while others hostile and terrifying.
Aesthetically, The Secret of Kells is beautifully crafted, and with the exception of the Flash and 3D scenes, it is all hand drawn on paper and filmed on pegboard. There are even scenes that appear to be watercolors, colored pencil, others paper collage, and pen and ink. One of the most remarkable aspects of the film are the transitions from being 2D – and quite graphic in nature – to having less subtle and more obvious 3D elements. The character designs are also amazingly simplified and remind me of Samurai Jack or Disney’s Mulan. The color palette emotes with saturated golds and deep greens when the pace is light-hearted and fun, but can quickly change to dreary greys, blacks, cobalt blues, and reds when it starts to get scary or violent. Check out this clip from the movie where Brendan battles an ancient serpent in the style of Harold and the Purple Crayon.
My few criticisms are that Christen Mooney’s (Aisling, sounds like “Ashley”) voice acting is a bit stiff at times, but perhaps it’s just that her character hasn’t had to talk to anyone in a long time. Then there were the Norsemen who were just gold-craving, killing machines. They did their job, but they were more of a force of nature than actual characters. That might have been the point, but one thing that can help a good movie become a great movie is an awesome villain.
All that said, if the sheer curiosity of the “secret” isn’t enough to make you watch it, you should know that back in 2009 it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (UP! ended up winning it that year). Pretty impressive for an Irish-French-Belgian feature film by two relatively unknown co-directors!