The Secret of Kells

An old school blend of myth and magic holds real key to future of animation

Rating: PG

Grade: A

Today, animation is all about photo-realism and three-dimensional effects. It is a visual medium, of course, and its target audience is younger and more jaded in a way because they have seen all that the frame can currently contain (from IMAX to high definition to videogame perspectives that put players in the heart of the action and the moment). Further, the stories themselves need to reflect the pop cultural relevance of the 24-hour news and entertainment cycle for both the kids and the adults who happen to be tagging along. But what ever happened to the sense of wonder and magic and the purity of re-telling an age-old tale?

Certainly, a mistake was made when, during the announcement of the nominees for Best Animated Feature during last month’s Academy Awards, The Secret of Kells slipped into the mix among the likes of Up, Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Princess and the Frog. The French/Belgium/Ireland production tells the story of the boy behind the mythic Book of Kells, not at all familiar to audiences on this side of the pond.

The orphan Brendan (voiced as a boy by Evan McGuire and later as an adult by Michael McGrath) who lives among the abbots in a walled fortress calls the stern Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) “uncle,” but he quickly falls under the spell of the legendary Aidan (Mick Lally), the great illuminator working on a sacred text, hundreds of years in the making, that will turn darkness into light and it must be completed and brought to the world, not hidden away and protected.

Brendan, in his efforts to aid Aidan in his quest to complete the great book, wanders outside the walls of his abbey, expressly forbidden by Cellach, and encounters the magical forest faery Aisling (Christen Mooney). It is in this relationship that the magical and the spiritual create a more perfect union. The Secret of Kells doesn’t back away from the blending of seemingly pagan elements and more Christian-oriented themes; they co-exist and offer secret answers to the mysteries of life and our higher purposes.

Swirling imagery and triptych frames make the religious plain in the presentation, but the individual cels teem with movement and artful composure that feel worthy of museum walls, whereas even the best of our current animated films seem to aim for high-definition flat screens. Nothing in The Secret of Kells tips in favor of our current sensibilities. It speaks to what it truly means when we talk of the ancient and the epic, things that should not be forgotten or kept locked away.

The Secret of Kells will be shown exclusively at the Little Art Theatre

Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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