The Secret Ingredient Is Social Commentary

03/05/2010 4:00 AM |

The Secret of Kells

Directed by Tomm Moore, with Nora Twomey

As American animation moves deeper into the realm of computer generated images that require special glasses, the Irish indie The Secret of Kells goes back to basics. Way back: not only is it mostly hand drawn, but it’s also as perspectiveless as the medieval manuscripts that inspire its aesthetic (which is also filtered through crude cartooning, Japanime, and artsy—PBS, maybe?—Saturday morning styles, drawing a unifying line from antiquity to modernity.) Set in a dark ages hamlet, the film begins by reveling in a juvenile sense of humor that should get the bairns slappin’ their knees: pratfalls, fat men falling in mud, a pig in lipstick and a goose on the loose. But it soon moves into darker and deeper territories, as the film grapples with epistemology, the inspirational and transformational powers of art, and the tension between strength, security and a culture’s ideals.

Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), a wee monk in training, lives in Kells, a small village that happens to be in the middle of the rampaging Path of Mayhem that the terrifying Vikings, depicted as hulking masses of shadow with sinisterly glowing red slits for eyes, are cutting through the world. (The Northern parts, anyway.) His uncle, the town Abbott (Brendan Gleeson, the guy who wasn’t Colin Ferrell in In Bruges), is building a wall to keep them at bay while discouraging what he sees as distracting work on The Book of Kells, an illustrated volume of mythic spiritual power being completed by the boy and a legendary bookmaker-monk (Mick Lally) who resembles Willie Nelson. (The real Book of Kells, which collects the Gospels—though any conspicuous Christo-references are omitted here—is a national treasure in Eire, and the film serves as a sort of mythological origins story.)

Brendan travels beyond the wall into the Forbidden Forest that surrounds it a la The Village, with a feline sidekick a la Coraline, and pals up with a colorless nymph (Christen Mooney) who threads in and out of nature like a gust of wind; outside of the hermetic village, the world is governed by pagan dream logic, perfectly captured by the hallucinatory animation as it weaves together spiraling tree branches, glittering butterfly swarms, and sunbeam-streaked sylvania. Celtic songs transform material creatures into spectral mists while the filmmakers pitch forests, full of godliness and ancient pagan evil, as living things that transmogrify from dream into nightmare and back again as easily as a man breathes.

The Secret of Kells, given a bump in exposure by a surprise Oscar nod for best animated film, advocates an admirable bibliophilia to kids of the Kindle Age, a nice complement to its trend-bucking visual style, though it also acknowledges that wisdom comes not just from books but also from observing nature. Get outside, kids! (The film is also a celebration of drawing, imagination and the importance of arts education, and as such evokes the recent, lovely and already forgotten Nickelodeon series Chalk Zone.) Most strikingly, though, the film looks at the way that, in protecting our Way of Life, we neglect what makes that life worth living. Authority figures forget the ideals that they protect, pursuing security for its own sake. But, the film argues, a culture’s physical might should serve only as a reflection of the strength of its values and convictions—which, despite the movie’s Irish origins, sounds like a lesson distinctly intended for contemporary America.

Opens March 5