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Secret Of Kells, The (2009)

The 2009 nominations for the Oscar for best animated feature was an impressive bunch. The eventual winner, Pixar's Up was nominated alongside Fantastic Mr Fox, Coraline and Disney's Princess and the Frog. All four are well regarded by both fans of animation and by film aficionados in general. This only makes it all the more remarkable that a fifth film, a little-known feature from Ireland, also made the list that year. The Secret of Kells was not well known at the time of its nomination, and the passing of the intervening years has not really changed that. Yet with that Oscar night long gone, now seems as good a time as any to take a look back at this underdog flick.

The Secret of Kells is set in medieval Ireland in a time under the constant threat of invasion by Vikings. In the Abbey of Kells, the Abbot is obsessed with efforts to build a wall to protect the Abbey and its inhabitants from the dreaded Northmen. The story follows the Abbot's nephew, an adventurous and curious orphan named Brendan. Kells Abbey is a real place (not far from what is now Dublin) and this is a fictionalised retelling of the creation of the real-life manuscript The Book Of Kells. The book is regarded as one Ireland's most prized historical artefact. In the film, the book is begun by Brother Aiden, a master Illuminator who fled the Scottish island of Iona following a Viking invasion. Aiden enlists Brendan's help in completing the manuscript an undertaking that will lead him into the forbidden forest that lies beyond the abbey walls.
As you may have gathered this is quite a different proposition to your average Pixar or Dreamworks animation. It's setting alone would make it seem original, but it is the execution that makes it unique.

Despite the grounding in true events, don't mistake this for some dry history lesson. It's true that most audiences outside of Ireland won't understand the significance of the historical elements, but this isn't really a problem. The filmmakers use considerable artistic licence, adding fantasy and supernatural elements you won't find in a History textbook. It is perfectly enjoyable on its own terms, without knowing a single thing about the real story. It's also worth a mention that despite revolving around monks, and being based on the creation of religious manuscripts, this film doesn’t really have a religious element to it all. The presence of fairies and mythical creatures means it has a much more mythical feel, rather than any real tie to Irish Catholicism.

Visually, the Secret of Kells is one of the most fascinating traditionally animated films of recent years. The character designs are simplistic and cartoonish, but contrast with the rest of the film. Almost every frame is full of rich textures that give the film a sumptuous look. Despite giving it a modern spin, the visuals deliberately recall classic Illuminations and Celtic art, evoking beautifully the Book Of Kells itself. The music too seems to perfectly suit the movie. Along with the visual aesthetic, the result is a film that could only have originated on the Emerald Isle; The Secret of Kells is as Irish as Wallace and Gromit are British.

For much of the running time I felt the story felt as if it was aimed at young children, yet later it ventures into darker territory. The Vikings and presented as intimidating, almost supernatural creatures, that look like the Lord of The Rings' Dark Riders but sound like Dr Claw from Inspector Gadget. Their eventual arrival at Kells results in a fantastic, thrilling sequence, but it might be a bit scary for younger children.

In a world where most animated films are packed with pop culture references and big-name stunt-casting (the only recognisable name here is Brendon Gleeson), The Secret of Kells is refreshing. It's a simple tale, told with considerable flair. It's about time The Secret was out.