November 2, 2010

The Secret of Kells (2009)

THE SECRET OF KELLS came out of nowhere at the 2010 Academy Awards, filling in the fifth spot in the nominees for Best Animated Feature Film. For it to be in the same company with major releases such as Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and The Frog, and Up was truly unexpected. (Up took home the Oscar.)

Last month, The Secret of Kells was released on DVD and Blu-Ray, giving us all the chance to catch up with this Oscar underdog…


In medieval Ireland, a young apprentice named Brendan (Evan McGuire) lives in a remote town, under the thumb of his uncle Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) who works non-stop fortifying the town’s walls from an impending attack from marauding Vikings.

But then Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), a celebrated illuminator, arrives carrying a magical but unfinished book full of secret wisdom and powers. To help complete the book, Brendan has to overcome his deepest fears through a dangerous quest that takes him into the neighboring forest where mythical creatures hide – and where Cellach says he is forbidden to go. It’s there Brendan meets Aisling (Christen Mooney), a mysterious young girl who helps him on his quest. But with the Vikings closing in, will Brendan's determination and artistic vision light the way through the potentially dark days that lay ahead?


A large part of The Secret of Kells’ buzz that made it an Oscar contender was its unique, artistic animation, and it’s true: The film’s animation is visually arresting, with an accompanying score by Bruno Coulais that perfectly fits the scenery and action. And while artsy, it remains accessible, with character action that you could find in any Disney classic.

Furthermore, despite Kells being perceived as a dark-horse, anti-Disney feature, there are several aspects to its story that are decidedly Disney-esque:
  • a young child seeking adventure (Brendan)
  • an enabling, avuncular friend (Brother Aidan)
  • an unbelieving parental figure (Brendan’s uncle)
  • a fellow adventurer of the opposite sex (Aisling)
  • an animal sidekick (Brother Aidan’s cat, Pangur Ban)
  • the importance of imagination
Then again, The Secret of Kells is more somber than most Disney fare. And it’s this somber tone that makes Kells feel longer than its 75-minute running time (though not in a completely bad way), concluding with an anti-climactic yet poetic ending.

It would seem that The Secret of Kells landed that fifth spot in the animated Oscar race due to its unique story and animation. But while Kells is good, it’s not great. And since I’ve seen Up, I can confidently say the Academy made the right choice.


What did Dash think?
Dash was completely captured by The Secret of Kells, barely uttering a word through the whole film. Though summing it up afterward, he declared, “It wasn’t the best movie, but it was a good movie” and “The ending was kind of weird.”

Will your kids like it?
Both Dash and little brother Jack-Jack watched The Secret of Kells intently and seemed to enjoy it, though repeat viewings are doubtful. I think most kids would be sucked in to the visual treat of the animation and the literally magical friendship between Brendan and Aisling.

However, there are some parts of The Secret of Kells that may be frightening to very young children (though four-old Jack-Jack seemed unfazed by them). Keep in mind that the following are all done very artistically, not gratuitously, and many in abstract form:
* A pack of wolves in the forest is quite menacing
* It’s implied that someone is killed by a Viking’s bow and arrow off-screen
* The Vikings are a scary sight – lumbering, inhuman shapes that tower over the people of Brendan’s town
* The Vikings shoot Brendan’s uncle with an arrow, and stab him once out of frame
* During the Viking attack, an overcrowded scaffold walkway collapses, showing silhouettes of people falling
* At the end of the attack, the skies are covered in red and fire
* The wolves attack the Vikings, killing several of them off-screen

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
I think she’d appreciate the visual craftsmanship put into the film, and the friendship formed between Brendan and Aisling. As for the rest…?

The inspiration for Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair.”

The Secret of Kells
* Director: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey
* Screenwriter: Fabrice Ziolkowski
* Stars: Evan McGuire, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally, Christen Mooney
* MPAA Rating: N/A

Buy The Secret of Kells from (DVD) >>
Buy The Secret of Kells from (Blu-Ray) >>
Rent The Secret of Kells from Netflix >>


Anonymous said...

Great review and the Willow Smith reference made me smile and whip my hair a little!!!!

Kal said...

I came across this one on the satellite and I was charmed by the story and the animation. Definately like few things I had ever seen before although it did remind me someone of 'Samurai Jack' in it's look and that is not a bad thing at all. I don't think it holds up in repeat viewings but it's a different kind of story to share with the kids who think all animation is about talking animals and inanimate objects.

StuartOhQueue said...

The animation looks wonderful! I'll have to check this one out. How would you say the inventiveness of the story matches up with a Miyazaki film, say, "Princess Mononoke" or "Spirited Away"?

FilmFather said...

Stu -- Kells' story is definitely unique and inventive. In terms of comparing to Miyazaki...Miyazaki's stories are more engaging and, frankly, more magical. (My boys can't get enough of My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo.)


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