BRENDAN AND THE SECRET OF KELLS Review

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[Our thanks to Ben Umstead for the following review.]

The best way to gauge a film geared towards children is to, well, see it with an audience primarily consisting of children. So come one sunny Saturday morning in New York City that is what I did, and wouldn’t you know, the screening for Tomm Moore’s animated THE SECRET OF KELLS at the IFC Center was the sold out US premiere.

So how did the film fare? Read on after the break…

Brendan is an orphan living in the Abbey of Kells, with his multi-ethnic monk brethren who should be reading and writing the great illuminatory works of their age, but instead under the brooding, rigid instruction of Brendan’s uncle, the Abbot of Kells, are putting all their resources and time into constructing a gargantuan wall to protect them from the impending Viking threat. Brendan would rather spend his days drawing or daydreaming of the forbidden forest outside the abbey than standing under the strict shadow of his uncle. Even catching a run away goose is a grand distraction.

With the sudden arrival of the legendary Brother Aidan and his cat companion Pangur Ban, Brendan’s life is to change forever, oh yes, for that is what happens in good coming of age adventures. Aidan is the current scribe of the fabled book of Iona, which he brings with him to the gates of Kells, but he also brings bad tidings of the Northmen’s wrath which grows nearer everyday. Aidan must continue his work on the book of Iona and whom better to help him than the eager Brendan?

Steeped in Celtic, Catholic and other Pagan lore, KELLS is far from a history lesson or a subversive story on finding religious faith. In fact the Book of Iona is never even referred to as the Bible. When Brendan ventures into the forest on a quest to find berries, which will be turned into ink for Brother Aidan, the natural world is presented as a spectacular plethora of climbing trees and secret glades where a child can aimlessly explore for hours. There is danger which lurks, though make no mistake, and when Brendan Pangur Ban are trapped by a throng of wolves amongst “Stonehenge” like ruins, Aisling (pronounced Ashley) a shape shifting fairy and guardian spirit of the forest - who appears as both a white wolf and a milky skinned child - saves them. Really it is in Brendan and Aisling’s friendship where the film shows reverence and acknowledgment for many belief systems and histories, painting a world where all co-exist if not sometimes clash. A well paced adventure, Moore and screenwriter Fabrice Ziokowlski are more than able storytellers, like the best bards of children;s tales they intrinsically understand how to weave myth and morals into a tapestry championing the power of art and imagination over closed mindedness and greed.

And as always a good children’s story is for children of all ages. In fact, this may be one where adults enjoy it more than kids, at least judging from my audience. Then again why do people always assume children want to do things in the morning, particularly watch movies at 11 AM? As a child, my friends and I hated mornings. And as it is, children’s reactions to movies vary quite differently from adults’. Equally easy and difficult to read, sometimes tepid, sometimes outspoken, delighted, scared or confused, rest assured this should be a one of a kind experience for anyone growing up in the age of mostly elastic and rubbery 3D animated features, as KELLS’ illustrated look is quite unique and shows just how vital and vibrant 2D animation can be. Along with Moore’s team of animators at Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon, his co-director Nora Twohey, and backing from France and Belgium to boot, KELLS is without a doubt one of the most immediately striking and beautifully designed animated debuts to arrive on the scene in a long time.

As much as it implements the distinctive spiral-centric calligraphy of Celtic art plus the stain glass look of Catholic iconography the film has echoes of both 20th century comic and illustrated work, wherein it could also be argued that these forms were influenced by the panel like presentation of both the Celts and Catholic “illuminators”. Its character design is based on the simplest of shapes and lines, cueing the audience in on personality and nature instantly. Brendan is a collection of wide circles, exuding his eager wonder and daring. Aisling is wavy, ethereal, nearly translucent as she weaves, curls, swirls across the screen. The Monks are generally presented in a comic, eccentric manner, the Vikings as jagged, blockish brutes with glowing eyes, virtually monsters from the unknown cloaked in darkness.

Having made the festival circuit this past winter and spring, THE SECRET OF KELLS has already been released in Irleland, Belgium and France with help from Buena Vista International and should be getting a limited release in North America sometime around Christmas. It goes without saying that I urge people to keep an eye out for this delightful and truly breathtaking film. It heralds the arrival of a great new talent in Moore, which in these latter days of auteur Miyazaki and co. is most certainly welcome.

Review by Ben Umstead

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