Classic Film Kid: Secret of Kells

In 2010, this was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards alongside Coraline, Up, Fantastic Mr Fox and The Princess and the Frog. The nominees for that year were good.

Hello everyone! This is the Classic Film Kid here, bringing you another review. Today we are delving back into the field of animation. Last time I did this, we looked at one of my personal favourite films in Coraline, and today, it’s no different.

The Secret of Kells was the first film made by Irish animated studio Cartoon Saloon, and uses Irish mythology heavily in its story. It focuses on a young boy named Brendan, who lives under the protective rule of his uncle. He has become paranoid about building a wall around the village of Kells to protect themselves against potential invasions, but the arrival of the well-known monk Aidan entrances Brendan, and he seeks to assist Aidan in completing the mystical Book of Kells while keeping away from the watchful eye of his uncle.

The story of how I came to watch this film is actually quite interesting, as it was a recommendation from Rob for family films to watch. I had heard of the film before, but tended to brush it aside. When I watched this film, I realised I was so wrong in doing so, as this film is brilliant, and an underrated gem. It is definitely a feat for an independent animated studio to produce and distribute a film that gets unanimous praise all round and is recognised so much – the reputation this film has is very well-earned.

The most refreshing aspect of The Secret Of Kells is how is takes the tropes of various fantasy and children’s films i.e. someone not being able to leave a certain place because of unseen danger, and subverts them. The example I just used is the main one, as Brendan is unable to leave the confines of Kells due to creatures and other threats that lie in the forest and surrounding areas. However, the belief of his uncle Abbot are real and understandable – the Vikings are gradually taking over Ireland, and an attack on Kells is imminent. This bending of the formula is what makes this film unpredictable, and so the twists and turns are genuinely thrilling to see unfold, and it leads to an exciting and dark third act (that is actually quite brutal for a PG-rated film, I might add).

This film also has a small, but nonetheless memorable, collection of characters. The main character is Brendan, an adventurous boy who leads a sheltered life. Imagine him as Quasimodo from The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, only the circumstances are a lot less tragic and twisted. He is a generally likeable main protagonist, though occasionally a little bit whiny. His desire to help Aidan complete the book brings this on, and it’s not as if it’s a massive problem whenever it shows up, it’s just not the most appealing trait in the entire world.

Aidan has the most interesting backstory, and is in my opinion the best character of the film. He kind of takes the stereotype of the wise, old man who has been through a lot, and he’s really engaging because of this, as well as the very strong dynamic between him and the young Brendan, which is one of the highlights of the entire film. Then we get to the more mysterious characters with Aisling, a forest spirit who takes the form of a young girl. She is initially harsh and dismissive of Brendan, angry at him for trespassing in her forest, but soon she evolves and becomes Brendan’s ally, albeit not firm friend. She’s a great creation, but I think she’s a bit under utilised – with a character of her nature, you would expect her to be more prominent and more useful to our hero. The other main character is Abbot Cellach, voiced by Irishman and Mad-Eye Moody himself, Brendan Gleeson. He’s the film’s example of a human antagonist, providing problems and restrictions for Brendan, sometimes even more so than the dangerous inhabitants of the forest. He is also a father figure to him, and his controlling demeanour and intimidating presence makes for some of the film’s more intense moments.

We cannot talk about a Cartoon Saloon film without mentioning the unique fantastic animation. Director Tomm Moore said it was inspired by the works of Hayao Miyazaki and medieval art, being ‘flat, with false perspective and lots of colour.’ This style is also retained for Cartoon Saloon’s two other films, Song of The Sea and The Breadwinner, and it is simply marvellous to look at. The colour palette that’s referenced in the quote from Moore is also really distinct, with lots of greens and yellows when we enter the forest, and simple, duller greys with the monastery and its walls. It makes for a really nice mix.

If I did have one more criticism to make, it would be that the ending feels a little bit abrupt. The sequence where the Vikings invade is truly fantastic, and the downbeat ending where the work of Brendan and Aidan is ruined really tugs at your heartstrings: after this however, it becomes a montage-style scene showing Brendan and Aidan completing the book over a period of time, with them both ageing in the process, and it feels a little lazy. Surely they could have shown the process in a bit more detail, with a look at the perils they both faced or something like that? I don’t know, it just feels a bit jarring.

However, I can’t complain too much. The Secret Of Kells does have a few missed opportunities that would have benefited it, but the things that it does do it pulls off with excellent results, with an unpredictable story, a set of colourful characters, and the visual treat that is the animation. The Secret Of Kells gets an 8.5/10.

I hope you enjoyed this review of Cartoon Saloon’s The Secret Of Kells. I hope to cover their other work in the future, but that will come after the other film and TV reviews I have in store. Until then, this is the Classic Film Kid, signing off.

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