By Richard von Busack
THE SUBJECT of the 75-minute animated film The Secret of Kells is Christendom’s greatest illuminated manuscript. It was, said one chronicler, the work of angels disguised as men. The Book of Kells survived a dozen centuries of war and occupation. Historian Will Durant described it: “Byzantine and Islamic styles of illumination entered Ireland, and for a moment reached perfection there. Here, as in Moslem miniatures, human and animal figures played an insignificant role; none was worth half an initial. ... The spirit of this art lay in taking a letter or a single ornamental motive ... and drawing it out with fanciful humor and delight till it almost covered the page.”
It is an Irish treasure. Ireland is contained in its Celtic knots and lines, abstracted from the native vines and briars. But other influences and the artists’ tools link the book’s parts farther away; for instance, the blue lapis used as a pigment is reckoned to have come from the lands of the Afghans. The Secret of Kells celebrates the book’s creation as a gift to the world.
Young Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) is a monk at his uncle’s abbey at Kells in 9th-century Meath. The merciless Viking raiders approach, and the humorless uncle, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), is occupied in trying to fortify the monastery: “It is with the strength of our walls that they will learn to respect the strength of our faith.”
Brendan is more interested in a new arrival to the monastery: the aged brother Aidan (Mick Lally), who carries with him the last treasure from his island of Iona: a magnificent illuminated manuscript. Aidan takes Brendan as an apprentice, much to the anger of Cellach. When Aidan sends the boy out into the wolf-haunted forest to seek pigments, he encounters a fairy named Aisling (Christen Mooney has one of those cracked, old-young voices you sometimes hear—Marianne Faithfull’s, for instance).
The passages with Aisling make this film sing—her own song, sung when Aisling ensorcells a cat, is an unusually lovely Celtic air. The Secret of Kells stresses the book’s importance on its own, rather than because of the Latin gospels it contains. The film is the opposite of the “violence for the sake of Christianity” tale like The Book of Eli. What’s stressed here is art as the hope of civilization, representing something more than life.
The love of nature also radiates from this movie. The action takes place at a time when the Christian veneer over pagan Ireland was very thin. The movie is at its best in the woods with its black wolves, their silhouettes as sharp as razors. Aisling herself is able to walk among them and lead them; sweeping her spiraling, ankle-length white hair and bell-bottomed tunics, she swirls up and around tall, sacred trees.
The Secret of Kells doesn’t get too airy-fairy. When the Vikings turn up to plunder the countryside, their horned helmets and red eyes make them Picasso Minotaurs, marching in battalions. The curling dragons of their ship helms are seemingly alive and breathing fire—it’s a little touch of Tim Burton.
The film resembles pen-and-ink animation, but directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey have used digital animation discreetly to fill the screen, to insert visions of microscopic details. They have abstracted the human figures to architectural shapes. Aisling’s hair makes its own labyrinths. The hardheaded Cellach is a human missile, posed against the thick concentric Romanesque windows. The arch-shaped monks, with their knobby Byzantine hands, look ready to fit into their own stained-glass windows.
Few animators have worked with this medieval style, if you don’t count Terry Gilliam’s burlesques of old manuscripts in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Certainly, The Secret of Kells’s overdue release is conclusive proof that 2009 was the finest year in the 106-year-old history of animation. There’s an official theory for this; the upcoming documentary Walking Sleeping Beauty suggests that Disney’s renaissance in the 1980s and the building of CalArts was what triggered the phenomenal year we just enjoyed.
It’s an intriguing idea, but the visuals in The Secret of Kells owe more to animators who went to work independently after the 1941 Disney strike. The film recalls the cartoons of John Hubley and UPA of the late 1940s and 1950s, with their Matisse-like embrace of flatness, the simplicity of design, the panels of color and the patterned backgrounds, sometimes glowing through the translucent characters. There’s even a squinting, crabbed old monk who seems to be a tribute to UPA’s biggest star, Quincy Magoo. The UPA style is in the public memory hole now, and I hope that The Secret of Kells will rescue it.
(Left) from UPA's The Invisible Mustache of Raoul Dufy (1957) by Aurelius Battaglia
In addition to reviving this once-modern limited animated look, it’s an economical way to make a cartoon. Nevertheless, Moore, Twomey and the rest of the artists at Cartoon Saloon have indeed made something unique.
Beyond the good taste, there’s serious talent; they had the humor and freshness to animate the tale of a monk’s death in flashback as a joke of X’d eyes and last gasps.
A realistic cat is the very hardest animation challenge, and the animators meet it with a beast that glides, cowers and comforts like the real thing; this cat’s face is a simple circled X, and yet it’s very expressive.
This tenderness is combined with more light-fingered animation—a Daffy Duckish moment of a goose’s reaction shots to having a few plumes plucked for quill pens. The goose’s tiny ordeal may offer up as much of a hard moral as this terrific film offers: one must suffer a little for the sake of illumination.