I saw The Secret of Kells this weekend, an animated film about the Book of Kells, ostensibly, or a young boy being raised by monks and illuminators who will go to any length to protect it.
Brendan, a boy of 12 being raised by his Uncle, the Abbot of Kells, is fascinated with the manuscripts being illuminated by the monks. His Uncle, meanwhile, is more concerned with saving Kells from advancing marauders from the North (Vikings)
who have pillaged and destroyed other communities by building a wall and gates to keep them out, and anything that distracts from that is frivolous.
Brendan’s fancy is captured when he is told the story of the master illuminator Aidan of Iona, who supposedly has such power that sinners are destroyed by the light that pours forth from his book. Brendan has a vision of Iona being destroyed, and soon after Aidan shows up at the door with his cat, Pangur Ban (which is a great callout to a famous poem written by a ninth century monk that I only know from Barber’s wonderful “The Monk and His Cat” from the Hermit Songs that you can listen to here - you gotta love how the piano sounds like a cat is tromping up the keys).
Anyhow, Brendan and Pangur venture to a forest that he is forbidden to go into to gather some oak berries for green ink.
They are set upon by wolves, and narrowly saved by Aisling (sounds like Ashley), a fairy of the woods. In a beautiful sequence, she shows Brendan the woods and all their wonders.
Aidan thinks his drawing is talented enough to be the keystone middle page of the manuscript, and he goes to find a crystal that is needed to see the world in a way to create the beauty of the illustration.
Eventually he is discovered, and his Uncle locks him in the tower until he learns what’s important, and keeps him from the scriptorium. The Vikings attack, Brendan and Aidan escape, and continue work on the book. There’s more, but you get the idea.
That’s quite a lot of it actually.
Kudos for simply the design of the movie. It’s gorgeously designed, fanstasically using the Celtic design and the design of the book to illustrate the story. The directors did not stop themselves from using imagination to tell the story, or to illustrate the feeling of something, rather than the literal illustration of it. The Abbot’s room, for instance, is dark and covered in drawings and architectural plans.
The people themselves are curved, and in groups fit into Romanesque arches.
Celtic knots are used frequently, and are prominent in Brendan’s struggle with the monster he must battle for the crystal. Imagination and concrete reality mix back and forth in a sometimes breathtaking pace, so the viewer is in-between fantasy and reality, impression and observation.
Besides my one main story issue, it’s actually the way the story is told that was somewhat responsible for my lack of emotional involvement. The script is good, and the voice talent is great (though the choice to have a girl with a thick Irish accent whisper at the beginning was weirdly off-putting). What happened for me, though, was that I was so taken with admiring the design and the imagination in telling that the story began to take a backseat. It was a standard boy-who-is-not-listened-to-but-must-save-everyone tale: he has an animal familiar, a guiding older voice who is an artist/sage, and a magical friend who no one else can see but who saves him. It’s all gorgeously done, but I was kept from being completely transported because of the prominence of the design, which felt at times overpowering to the story it was trying to tell. It called itself out a bit.
Looming larger is that though this happens in an Abbey, and among the religious, no one mentions that this “book” Brendan needs to work on and that will save civilization is The Gospels. Nowhere is it mentioned that it’s the story of Christ. Even stranger is that none of the characters, though religious, mention Christ, prayer or devotion. The Abbot is concerned with attack, and the illuminators with “the book”, but seemingly to its own ends - there is no discussion of faith, which seemingly would be at the base of all these actions and beliefs. We are never told why the book is so great, or why eventually it glows when it’s opened and can cause sinners to choke or die. The creators seem to want to glide over that most important fact. And even though I’m not calling for a religious story, it seems to flatten it out when that aspect is missing. It feels like a copout. I guess the big secret of Kells is that this entire community of monks is Christian and trying to save the bible.
I couldn’t help but think that this book they were trying so hard to save became the religion that eventually erased Aisling and her like from Ireland. So the magic in the film, the magic that saves Brendan’s life at least 3 times, is what followers of “the book” did their best to destroy. Brendan even says that the Abbot says she doesn’t exist and the other things are Pagan fantasy. The movie certainly doesn't think so, but doesn't ever deal with it. I guess if they opened that can of worms it would have been a completely different film. But not mentioning what "the book" was and what it’s done seems to be a disservice as well.
Beautiful animation, though, I will say that. Truly a gorgeous design. I'm glad I saw it.