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Movie Review: The Secret of Kells

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It’s a long while now that I’ve really longed to watch an animated movie that is interesting for adults, childishly magical, and truly moving without being cliché. It wouldn’t hurt if the animation was exceptionally beautiful and the music enchanting. It’s quite a lot to ask, I know, but sometimes you can be pleasantly surprised by movies from smaller, less famous companies. Such is the animated feature The Secret of Kells from director Tomm Moore (who’s also a comics artist when not making movies).

The movie follows Brendan, an orphan young boy, raised by his uncle in the abbey of Kells. The monks of Kells, who used to write and illuminate books, are now engaged in fortifying the monastery wall, in fear of the Vikings. Brendan is not allowed to wander outside the small village, much less enter the surrounding thick forests.

One day, an old monk arrives to Kells. He is the famous illuminator Aiden of Iona, and the sole survivor from a Viking attack on his own monastery. Aiden is carrying the book of Iona: his life-long enterprise which he must complete and also protect. Soon enough, little Brendan starts helping the old monk in completing the book.

Disobeying his uncle, Brendan secretly wanders into the woods, searching for special berries of which green ink can be produced. In the woods he meets a cute forest-fairy called Aisling, who looks like a little girl with long white hair, but apparently is much older and powerful. They become friends, and Aisling will protect Branden from dangers, and also show him the beauty of her forest.

The Secret of Kells

The Vikings will eventually arrive to Kells, of course. They are depicted as faceless horned black shadows, who occasionally utter the word “Gold…!”. So, not much for the elaborate depiction of Vikings, but this is how they would look to a frightened child.

You might think that the story has a religious theme, the book of Kells being a religious book and all, but I didn’t perceive it as such. It’s about seeing “beauty thrive in the most fragile of places“ as Aisling tells us in the beginning of the movie, referring to the beauty of the illuminated book, created in such turbulent circumstances, serving as a source of comfort and light in dark ages.

What’s really captivating about this movie is the amazingly unique animation. It’s actually in the style of the ancient book it tells about: A childish, cute and cartoony version of ancient Christian iconography with Celtic motives. The characters are composed of geometrical shapes, much like in stained glass you would see in cathedrals. The forest sceneries are composed of swirling Celtic shapes, all with an adorable childish touch.

My favorite scene of the movie is definitely when Aisling the forest-fey sings a childish, medieval song to the cat Pangur Ban, enchanting it into a misty creature, and myself into a definite fan of the movie.

Each frame is a masterpiece, so elaborate, colorful, and just plain beautiful. The movie definitely deserved the Oscar for which it was nominated.

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