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The Secret Of Kells DVD review


A family-friendly animated film that's cool enough for the rest of us to watch too...

The Secret Of Kells DVD

"A very good family animated film, that genuinely deserves to win the awards"

When the overview of this DVD name-dropped The Triplets of Belleville as being from the same producers, I was tempted to have a look. That film is engaging, continental in the style of slightly strange cartoons from other countries, and adult-themed, with gangsters and such,  - although done with a good dollop of humour.

Whilst sharing Didier Brunner and Viviane Vanfleteren as two of its producers, The Secret Of Kells is a somewhat different affair, being an extrapolation of Irish history and mythology. It is similar, however, in that it crosses the same boundary between art and entertainment.

The story concerns a small religious community in the Abbey of Kells in Ireland over a thousand years ago. They live in fear of attack from Vikings, and their Abbott is trying to get them ready by building a huge fortified wall. Meanwhile one of their smaller inhabitants, a boy named Brendan, is exploring and discovering the outside world, a forest, and the mysterious purposes of Holy books. In particular he is inspired by Brother Aidan, a book illustrator, or 'illuminator', to try to continue the work on the legendary Book of Iona, when Brendan brings it to the Abbey. Although not made explicit, the Book contains the gospels of the New Testament of the Bible, colourfully and mystically illustrated.

The film's animation is sometimes deceptively childish & two-dimensional & for a split-second you might think that they have cut corners and made a piece of 'art', particularly in the earlier 'explanatory' sequences. But a moment later a sunset, or beautiful landscape will appear, and you are left feeling 'teased' by the artistic form.

Back in the late 80s I spent some time in Dublin, and visited Trinity College, where the Book of Kells now resides. It was notable first for its historical significance, and second for the reverence with which it was presented. Despite that reverence, director Tomm Moore explains that many Irish people don't know about the history, and so the film fulfils that culturally 'worthy' purpose of putting people back in touch with their roots through a contemporary presentation. That said, it doesn't feel in the slightest bit 'preachy', and neither is it tied to the necessity of being historically accurate, settling on one rather romantic option for the possible history of the creation of the book. I was slightly surprised at the apparent presence in Kells at that time of a black monk, and one that with the name 'Sergei' appeared to be from Eastern Europe, but again it was a reasonable development of the real likelihood that the Book's creators were drawn from many places.

There is a childishness at the heart of the ancient Irish artwork that reminds me of aboriginal art from Australia. It also has its mysteries, in that it appears to have a level of detail that wouldn't have been physically possible using the techniques of the time. The film deliberately echoes the presentations of art historically, and this adds to the magic and 'gravitas' of the story.

The story's Vikings are suitably scary and violent in an understated way. The artwork that accompanies them is striking and emotional without having to be 'literal'. I've been working with a guy who has a very high threshold for violence, and I found myself wondering whether he would have found this held his attention or bored him. For myself I felt I was a 'mobile' version of the kinds of artwork that 2000 AD has in its Slaine stories, and it was to its credit that it only implied the violence, if anything making it more powerful.

The music features plenty of Irish folk-styles, violin etc., woven into contemporary sounds that should help the film enjoy a more timeless quality.

The film is definitely well-designed for children, featuring a young boy, Brendan, as its hero. He is voiced superbly by Evan McGuire. Brendan Gleeson, who I thought was fantastic in In Bruges, is equally commanding in this role as the voice of the Abbott. In fact all the acting is compelling and really supports the visuals well.

In all, a very good family animated film, that genuinely deserves to win the awards.

Special Features:
The extras include a reasonable collection of features technically deconstructing the film, along with a short about a boy born with his head on backwards, and a full directorial commentary track. The commentary has the feeling of eavesdropping a late night Irish dinner party, as the participants, including directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, talk in strangely hushed tones. They do give several insights into the multi-national co-production (the film was created by a multi-national team in Hungary, France and Belgium as well as its 'native' Ireland), and are nice for those of us that enjoy the melody of Irish speaking. I could convince myself that there are two syllables in the Irish pronunciation of the word film (fill-um).

4 stars

The Secret of Kells was released in the UK on November 1st, 2010

Running Time: 72 minutes approximately
Certificate: PG
Price: £19.99


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