The Best Animated Feature category of the 2009 Academy Awards offered an embarrassment of riches to any fan of animation. Pixar’s UP, arguably their most poignant and endearing feature, was the favorite to win; THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, Wes Anderson’s anthropomorphic stop-motion Roald Dahl adaptation, the multicultural hand-drawn Disney feature THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, and CORALINE, which grossed $125 million at the box office, were also nominated. The fourth picture in the category was THE SECRET OF KELLS, a wild card unknown to all but the most ardent fans of animated films. This entry from GKids and Irish studio Cartoon Saloon could more than hold its own with the other three features in this category, and is worth a second or a third look.
Told from the perspective of Brendan (Evan McGuire), an orphan living at the Monastery of Kells, THE SECRET OF KELLS depicts life inside the walls of the monastery. While Brendan is apprenticing in the scriptorium, his uncle Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) has started building a wall around the monastery to shield their congregation from Viking invasions. After an invasion at the Monastery of Iona, the legendary scriptwriter Father Aidan (Mick Lally) comes to stay at Kells, where he works on a book that—to quote one of the other monks in the abbey—“turns darkness into light”. With Father Aidan’s guidance, Brendan becomes more curious about the world surrounding the abbey; his assistance of Father Aidan brings him further outside the walls of the monastery and into the woods surrounding it. As Brendan befriends the forest spirit Aisling (Christen Mooney), Cellach’s premonition of a Viking attack becomes frighteningly real.
Co-directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey’s animation bridges the gap between traditional hand-drawn 2D animation and computer animation. Many computer-animated films made the mistake of mimicking hand-drawn animation, Moore and Twomey made the computer animation central to the film’s aesthetic. The backgrounds are rendered to geometric perfection, and the saturated colors carry the kinds of blue undertones that animation programs were especially capable of depicting. The crisp lines and Celtic art contrast effectively with scenes drawn from Brendan’s perspective—shaky white lines drawn on blue-black backgrounds, in the style of early slate illustrations. The film’s graphic simplicity drew comparisons with early WPA cartoons like GERALD MCBOING-BOING, and with good reason: Moore and Twomey worked within the limitations of their animation software to create something simple, yet striking.
The use of hand-drawn and computer animation parallels one of the main conflicts of the script: the divide between paganism and Catholicism that divided Ireland in seventh-century Ireland. Since little of the Book of Kells’ creation is known, Moore and Twomey could connect the book with many aspects of Irish life and culture at the time. As Brendan delves further into the forests surrounding Kells, he faces many opponents familiar to Celtic mythology aficionados, such as Crom Cruach, whose eye he steals so that Father Aidan can have a magnifying glass. In other places, the script draws on Irish literary history: Father Aidan’s cat is named Pangur Ban, after a well-known scrap of verse depicting the relationship between a scholar and his feline familiar. In some places, Moore and Twomey subverted the Celtic lore that inspired the script. In the writing of William Butler Yeats, for example, a sprite named Aisling is depicted as a grown woman, but in THE SECRET OF KELLS, she is depicted as a preadolescent girl. While Aisling could have been written as a literal Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Moore grounded her in both the matriarchal paganism that Catholicism was seeking to make extinct, and in an influence closer to home. “We thought it would be fun to make her a little girl rather than a woman,” Moore told Andrew O’Hehir of Salon.com in 2010. “I based her on my own little sister, you know? She’s always trying to best him, and she’s got all these powers. Because she’s a fairy she can transform into any creature. She’s kind of a mixture of this wise old pagan deity and a pesky little sister.”
THE SECRET OF KELLS opened to great acclaim on a small number of screens in the US. While Moore and Twomey’s graphic style owes more to comic books and stained-glass windows and less to anime, the conflict of nature vs. man-made culture and the important presence of an impetuous girl character drew many comparisons with the work of Hayao Miyazaki—particularly the violence and nuanced argument in favor of nature conservation in MONONOKE HIME. KELLS doesn’t engage with the same kinds of big issues that drive Miyazaki’s work, taking a more allegorical approach than the direct work that Studio Ghibli did on MONONOKE HIME and NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND, but the filmmakers’ affection for Irish mythology and culture, coupled with their idyllic rendering of the Irish countryside, made them worthy of the comparison.
In a year full of important animated features, a small masterpiece like THE SECRET OF KELLS could have easily fallen through the cracks. Kudos to GKids for illuminating this work, so that others may see and enjoy it.