Despite being an animation fan, I actually hadn’t heard of The Secret of Kells until about two months ago. I missed any news of its release in Ireland at the beginning of 2009, I missed the buzz when it was nominated for an Oscar in 2010 and I ignored the few images I saw of it online, until I read that it was a kind of successor to The Thief and the Cobbler, being a beautiful and idiosyncratic film made outside the influence of the big studios. Yes, this is the first really noteworthy production from Irish company Cartoon Saloon, previously known only for the rather ugly Skunk Fu!, which I caught on TV once or twice. It was financed by French production companies and is slowly growing in renown through word-of-mouth, and it’s my sincere hope that the momentum it’s given Cartoon Saloon will lead to several great little films: the next, Song of the Sea, is already well underway.
Make no mistake, though – this does not look like an animated film a master has slaved over for half a lifetime. It has moments of real, stunning beauty, but it is still economically made and does not contain the sort of jaw-dropping sequences of Cobbler. Indeed, though that film is cited by director and original creator Tomm Moore as a major influence, the link is mostly that Kells has a heavy influence from Irish traditional art, just as Cobbler is influenced by Persian aesthetics. In fact, my first thought was that it looked like traditional animation imitating Flash (and indeed, there are a few sections of very obvious Flash animation – a shot of the main character running in panic towards the camera made me check it wasn’t ALL Flash, just done very cleverly), and that the closest resemblance was to My Life as a Teenage Robot or Samurai Jack (the latter being another example of traditional animation that looks similar to Flash). Thus it came as no surprise to see Samurai Jack’s creator Genndy Tartakovsky cited as another major influence – a lot of the character look like they would be right at home on Cartoon Network. Especially the two kids at the heart of the story.
But in terms of story, feel, pacing and concept, this is nothing at all like those hyperactive cartoons. The story takes place in 7th- or 8th-century Kells (it’s hard to say because the book is 8th-centry but characters here are historically 7th), and is a fictionalised account of the creation of the very real Book of Kells – amongst the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts extant. It seems likely that the germ of this film came when the creators looked at the sublime art in the book and wondered what it would be like to see it in animation – especially as one of the film’s most triumphant sequences, closing the film, works on that very idea. Young Brendan is the nephew of a stony-faced abbot fixed on one idea – fortifying the abbey against the Viking invaders who so often plunder the holy sites of the
The atmosphere throughout is tense – the invaders will come, sooner or later, and there’s no standing against them unless the wall is finished. The book is beautiful, but is it worth risking everything for? And while the walls may encircle a holy place, the pagan gods certainly exist in this world too – the whole thing is rife with the sort of symbolism that is fun to analyse but will soon be overanalysed in a rather irritating way.
The look of the thing perhaps could have been more striking, but at times is a real triumph. The characters are very stylised, drawing influences from old Irish art, but very appealing – though I’m not sure why there needed to be token representatives of different races in the abbey, as if it was meant to be inclusive and progressive it mostly came over as crude stereotyping. The Vikings are not really human. Part of the influence from the manuscripts is some backgrounds with an immense amount of detail and patterning – and it’s when that happens this looks the best. It’s lovely to look at sometimes, and when there are stylistic changes, such as the Flash sequences for chalk on a slate or when Brendan comes up against Crom Cruach, the strangeness and uniqueness of it is a triumph and a celebration of animated art.
While it is beautiful at times, has a sweet and moving story with a very real basis is history, lovely voice acting and rich characters, I found myself wishing for just a little more – more story, more explanation, more development, more impressive animation sequences. But that doesn’t stop this being an excellent film. Count me as a fan of the Saloon.