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World Cinema, Film Review: The Secret of The Kells (2009) 03/04/2017


Figure 1: 'The Secret of The Kells' (2009)

This film review will be focusing on the film 'The Secret of the Kells' (2009), this story follows the story of a bunch of Irish settlers, who are preparing for an attack by the Vikings. However when a man known as Brother Aiden, arrives with the legendary 'Book of Kells', said to be able to turn darkness into light, our main character Brendan begins to take an interest in him. After leaving the safety of the walls on multiple occasions he is finally stopped by his caretaker Abbott Cellach, Brendan is then faced with a choice, to stay home and learn from his mistakes or hit his fears head on and complete the Book of Kells.

The film was released in 2009, was directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, produced by Paul young, Tomm Moore also wrote the story, and the music was composed by Bruno Coulais and Kíla. The Secret of the Kells is an interesting film in terms of development, the film is meant to be wholly Irish, but it was produced by Britan, Ireland, France and America. Ireland has had its fair share of iconic films, but unfortunately, at the time there were a bunch of other studios to rival anyone else who would try to make a name for themselves. A good example of this is Don Bluth Productions (Also known as Sullivan Bluth Productions), a company formed from Disney when a bunch of animators decided to break away from Disney, obviously, that being a big mistake. However, despite the Irish animation markets shortcomings, Ireland has produced some good films for its time, such as 'The Land Before Time'(1988)'Thumbelina' (1994) and 'Secret of Nimh' (1982).

The Secret of the Kells in a lot of ways succeeds, but it also feels like a slight setback in terms of Irish culture. There are a lot of characteristics and quirks in the film that make it Irish, but some of the Irish traits put in place do feel slightly forced and at times make the film drag on. Characters in the film at times are well developed and with an amazing art style to boot lifts up the film for some of its issues, but the film does have an Irish authenticity to it, despite the fact it was co-developed by four different countries. What is good about the film is that it is different, both in a literal and logical sense, it's not like a stereotypical Hollywood blockbuster film, but it's also not just a re-telling of what Irish culture is "Steeped in both magic and mythology, "The Secret Of Kells offers a refreshing alternative to Hollywood fare." (Hunter A; 2010)

Figure 2: Oak Tree
So right off of the bat we're going to see what makes the cast of the film Irish (not literally), to start with its important to know where this whole film is derived from. The film is based on the Irish legend known as 'The Book of Kells', a book written about the four gospels and Jesus Christ. The book was written by many monks in Britain and Ireland and is said to be one of the greatest medieval treasures of all time. So an Irish holy book completely is written in detailed elaborate abstract decorations, that is more or less the Book of Kells in a nutshell.What is worth mentioning about the significance of the book in Irish culture, being supposedly one of Irelands main holy relics, this book would be an artifact of worship, and in some areas of Ireland like Kilkenny (Which is also where the director of the film, Tomm Moore grew up.) this book would have definitely been known or had some sort of significance amongst its people.

Now the cast of the film do have quirks to them that inherit Irish culture, apart from the immediately apparent Irish accents. Main themes around the Irish are about family, religion, kinship, freedom, loyalty and Happy-Go-Lucky fun, and these traits can be seen in the characters. Take for example Abbott Cellach, he has a stern aesthetic and motive to him, but his main concern is about the safety of his people, his family. Whereas brother Aiden is based on the ideals of Happy-Go-Lucky and Religion, basing his whole character off of the ideals of these traits and applying them to his animation, sudden, jumpy and humorous movements translates into the character very well. Another good example is Aisling, emphasizing the freewill and funny nature of the Irish, always creating just enough mischief in the way she interacts with Brendan but also being kind enough in order to help out the story.

The only character who is slightly at fault is actually Brendan, now it's important to note that Brendan is our main character, but he doesn't really follow any of the previous traits stated apart from freedom only to a small extent. It's unclear whether the choice to keep the character very blank is to help the viewer immerse themselves with the character and enjoy the film more. But the fact of the matter is that Brendan seems to be there for 'Comic Relief' and 'Moving the Plot Forward'. When 40% of the film is our main character following others and chasing things. It does begin to drag and really doesn't do the film justice. He does have Irish quirks to him such as the way he interacts with the other characters, but what really ruins his character as a whole is his development. Now obviously when he returns home after following Brother Aidan he is meant to look like a wise young man, giving off an immediate holy vibe to the character.

Now whilst his design is great and shows just how far he has come whilst still retaining his Irish qualities, the progression not only happens right at the end of the film. but it also happens in under 5 minutes of the whole film. If you blinked there would be a serious chance you could miss this key plot point, and also it doesn't help that the film almost immediately ends after the final shots of Brendan take place, it makes the audience feel confused and loose ends are tied too fast. It must be said after all that, that Brendan as a character does work, though, despite his shortcomings.

Figure 3: Crom
The real gem of the film is its art style, literally deriving from The Book of Kells itself, with illuminated text, the modern re-imagining is something quite impressive. Other films have attempted to do this, and while they may have succeeded, they get absolutely stomped on by this film. The 2D plane effect for the whole film stays consistent and really is a treat to watch. Once again deriving from its original source material this film had a lot of time and care put in to make sure the details were correct rather than just shoved in for 'Aesthetic Appreciation'. An example of this would be 'Sita Sings the Blues' (2008), and whilst the narrative is interesting the sudden changes of art styles can immerse the viewer and take away from the viewing experience. "Like the people in Nina Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues," these images move mostly from back and forth within the same plane, which is only correct since perspective hasn't yet created spatial dimension. But there's no feeling of limitation. Indeed, in a season where animated images hurl themselves from the screen with alarming recklessness, I was grateful that these were content merely to be admired." (Ebert R; 2010)

The consistency of the art style is brilliant, and even though in animation terms, there is nothing really spectacular about the animation, there is one sequence where the film isn't afraid to show what it's made of. We go from small boy chasing a goose, to Brendan fighting a Giant Tron Eel, Snake, Dragon Thing? and even despite the scenario change it still feels like the same film! The fact that every single shot of the film could be paused and seen as a work of art inspired by the original art style of the book of Kells is a clever way of preserving the old art style whilst funneling in a new one.

Now what makes the film Irish, however, is its color palette, choice of location and drawing styles. Besides the idea that 'It always rains in Ireland' or 'Everything is Grey', Ireland actually has some pretty amazing sights and scenes, like Skellig Islands, Mount Lenser, and The Giants Causeway. What the film does, however, is funnels in this medieval theme, with huge walls, giant forests and stormy seas. Then whenever we step outside the landscape is dotted with trees, rivers and Irish landscape traits that are instantly recognizable. Also the fact 90% of the film is centered around the color green, a color also associated with the Irish, an Irish vibe can immediately be felt the moment the film starts.

Figure 4: Pangur Ban and Aisling
Furthermore, another major point of the film is the sounds used throughout the entire film. Now the people who did the music for the film, Bruno Coulais and Kíla must have done their homework when coming up with their scores. "Bruno Coulais' evocative score, fits the narrative perfectly, which - again, setting it apart from traditional kiddie fodder - is a complex mesh of moral questions and folkloric quest, with no clear path laid out for our hero, or a monochrome good and evil to live by." (Ivan S; 2009) The use of wind instruments and particular melodies in the film really sell the Irish authenticity and gives the atmosphere of the film character, this isn't just a world your exploring, it's the world that's still being discovered.

Another noteworthy aspect of the film giving it it's 'Irish Qualities' are the voices and sounds. The obvious Irish trait of the film is its voice actors, now already this film was pretty distinct in terms of art style and sound design, so when instead of hearing a normal person speak you hear someone Irish speak it's instantly different. The Irish accent is very distinct, because of the way it is spoken in different parts of Ireland it can seem almost like an entirely different language or it can be a differentiation of the English accent. Now, this is the only other slight fault with the film, whilst these voices are distinct and match their characters, the voices can sometimes be slightly unrecognizable. This isn't a major problem in the film and doesn't take away from the experience but is still a minor issue, there was obviously a fair bit of work done to make sure this problem didn't happen, but the Irish accent is known for having some twists and turns within the English language.

Overall despite a few minor snags, the film is a good portrayal of Irish culture funneled into animation. The Irish qualities from the film are shown in full here and create a delightful and enjoyable product. The music from Irish themes, the art style based on the drawing in the book, the story based on an Irish legend and the literal traits of the Irish embedded into the characters. This film was made with love, and every second shows up on screen from the moment you hit play. "The animators show the change of seasons: blackened snow in winter, russet leaves fluttering in autumn. That must have added a huge burden to already painstaking work, and shows what a labour of love this film surely was for director Tomm Moore. The story is a bit tangled, and there is too much of it packed into nearly 80 minutes, but little kids won’t be bothered when the animation is so magical. Older ones may get restless." (Clarke C; 2010)

Bibliography

Clarke, C. (2010) 
The Secret of Kells. 
[Online] At:
(Accessed on 3 April 2017)

Ebert, R. (2010) 
The Secret of Kells Movie Review (2010) | Roger Ebert. 
[Online] At:
(Accessed on 3 April 2017)

Hunter, A. (2010) 
The Secret Of Kells film review and trailer.
[Online] At:

Ivan, S. (2009) 
The Secret Of Kells - Film4. 
[Online] At:
(Accessed on 3 April 2017)


Image Bibliography

Figure 1: 'The Secret of Kells' (2009)

Figure 2: Oak Tree

Figure 3: Crom

Figure 4: Pangur Ban and Aisling

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