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He Said, She Said Review Site

The Secret of Kells

What She said:


Who’s up for some French-Belgian-Irish animation?  I know, you’re like, “Whhattt??” Oh yes, it exists, and there are actually a few movies by the production company Cartoon Saloon. Their 2009 film, The Secret of Kells presents a fictionalized take on Irish history. It’s basically an origins story of the Book of Kells. Yeah, yeah, you probably don’t even know what the Book of Kells is. It’s this manuscript of Irish origin that includes four Gospels of the New Testament written in Latin. It’s also heavily illustrated with uniquely lavish drawings. Really neat to look at.

The Secret of Kells

Anyway, The Secret of Kells attempts to give some background on the Book of Kells in the form of an animated family film. The viewer becomes acquainted with the Abbey of Kells, where Abbot Cellach has been leading a charge to build high walls to keep Viking raiders out. Apparently these Vikings have been traveling from town to town, destroying entire civilizations with no regard for life or loss. They just pillage, kill, and move on. The fear is that Kells will be next. Brendan is Cellach’s nephew and an apprentice of the monastery of the Abbey. He gets to watch as the elders document history through their writings. He’s a naïve little boy, but one with ambition and imagination.

One day, a monk named Aidan of Iona arrives after having fled his own monastery, which was destroyed by the Vikings. He brings with him a book that he has been working on; however, he’s run out of ink and is not able to press forward with it. He asks Brendan to go out into the forest (against Cellach’s wishes) and collect some special berries from which the ink is created.  Brendan does so and meets a self-absorbed, yet curious forest spirit named Aisling (pronounced like Ashley). She helps him find what he’s looking for, but also tells him not to come back. Of course, she’s lying. She actually really likes him and before long she invites him back to hang out.

In the meantime, work on the Book remains unfinished because the Eye of Collum-Cille has been lost. It’s this jewel-like thing that is used by the monks as a sort of magnifying glass as they do their writings and illustrations. Brendan knows where to get another, similar object—in the cave of Crom Cruach—but it’s extremely dangerous. He recognizes that the book cannot be completed without it, and so he risks his life to travel back out to the forest and into the terrifying cave. Aisling helps Brendan, who manages to retrieve the Eye of Crom and escape Crom Cruach.

The Secret of Kells

Upon his arrival back at eh Abbey, Brendan begins helping Aidan complete the book in secret. But before long the Vikings arrive and begin their onslaught of Kells. Cellach’s walls fail, and the Vikings come in and kill without mercy. Cellach is wounded; however, Brendan and Aidan escape. Together they travel across Ireland and complete work on the book. After Aidan’s passing, Brendan returns to the Abbey of Kells, where he is reunited with Cellach, who at this point is himself close to death. The two reconcile and Cellach is clearly proud of who is nephew has become.

The one thing about this movie that actually hurts it for me is my own total ignorance to Irish history or folklore. I didn’t really know what the Book of Kells was coming into this movie, and that made the film initially a little difficult to follow. Fortunately, Wikipedia exists, and so I was able to inform myself before I got too deep into the movie. However, for those who don’t know much about the topics at hand, The Secret of Kells can be somewhat confusing. The plot is told in a very matter of fact way that leaves things somewhat vague to those who are unfamiliar with it. I think that the movie could have benefitted from having a little background text or backstory plot presented at the beginning. That probably would have made a world of difference.

Aside from that, I didn’t have too many complaints about this film. I thought it was really interesting, logical, and had good pacing and flow. The animation was different from what I’m used to seeing. It was a little more abstract and was constructed in the traditional 2D hand-drawn fashion. This was actually quite refreshing, even if it does need a little adjustment to get used to. It’s nice to not have CGI for once, and there’s more creativity through this form of visual expression.

The Secret of Kells

My biggest concern going in was that this would be more difficult to follow because of the fact that it was a foreign movie, set in Ireland, and voiced by native Irish speakers. I just thought their accents might be too thick for me to understand. However, this is not the case at all. Everyone speaks clearly, and I swear the kid who played Brendan didn’t even have an accent at all half of the time.

I think that American kids might have trouble staying engaged with this film because it doesn’t offer much of what they have become so used to. There are no talking animals, no loud and obnoxious musical segments, and everything is just a little bit more subdued. They’re just not going to connect with this film. In addition to that, the representations of the Vikings—while abstract—are downright terrifying. I’m surprised I didn’t have nightmares afterwards.

I think this film will work well for those who understand the history and who like something that is a little bit more traditional. It doesn’t have a lot of pizzazz, but for me it still worked. It was thoughtful and told a nice story.

Thumbs mostly up.

The Secret of Kells

What He said:


CThis movie tells the story of the Book of Kells using a comb ination of history and mythology. The Book of Kells is a collection of the four gospels, with a few other writings and lots of colorful illustrations, that is a treasure in the Irish culture.

The Secret of Kells

Abbot Cellach is the guy in charge at the Abbey of Kells (a monastery). He’s a rigid and cold man consumed by one thing – building a wall. Why does he want to build a wall? Well this is the time in history when Vikings were doing their thing their whole pillaging thing and stories of their horrors spread far and wide. Cellach believes the best, and only way really, is to build a giant wall aurrounding the abbey to keep them out if they show up. So, that is what most of their time is spent doing.

One of the few people not working on the wall is his nephew Brendan (Evan McGuire). Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) reluctantly gives Brendan permission to study in the scriptorium. Brendan has a passion for learning and an appreciation for his culture. He believes that it’s important they continue to preserve their culture even in the face of danger, something he and his uncle disagree with.

His uncle only cares about the wall. He’s portrayed as an antagonist in the movie, and he’s certainly a stubborn and flawed man, but it’s hard to completely disagree with them. If they don’t try to protect/defend themselves, there will be nobody left to preserve their culture. I know the movie that needs an antagonist though.

The Secret of Kells

The abbey is about to get a visitor that will create further division between Cellach and Brendan. Aidan of Iona (Mick Lally) is a renowned scribe from another abbey. The village is abuzz about his arrival, but he soon informs them that the reason for his visit is because his abbey was destroyed by the Vikings. This only increases Cellach’s determination to build a bigger and stronger wall. This creates issues between Aidan, Brendan, and Cellach. You see, Aidan is what is known as an illuminator. It just means that he writes and does (very elaborate) illustrations. He’s actually the current holder of the Book of Kells.

Aidan also has a confession. His eyes and hands are failing him. He has also lost his greatest tool – the Eye of Collum-Cille. It’s a mystical object that essentially serves as a magnifying glass that allows its holder to create the intricate illustrations found in the Book of Kells. Brendan can’t help with replacing the eye, but he can at least go into the forest and gather some berries that Aidan needs to create ink.

Brendan is forbidden from leaving the abbey’s grounds, but his passion for the book, as well as his curiosity about the outside world (he’s never been beyond the walls) gets the better of him and he decides to go for it. In the forest he meets a young fairy girl named Aisling (Christen Mooney). She is curious about Brendan, but pretends to be disinterested. She helps him find the berries and instructs him to not come back into the forest. It was all a front though and he actually visits several more times. Something she says during one of the visits leads Brendan to believe he can help Aidan with the issue of the lost Eye.   

The She wanted to watch this because she read about another animated feature by the same creators that was recently nominated for an award. I wasn’t terribly interested, but not unwilling to give it a chance and I am glad that I did. I enjoyed this movie very much. I thought it was a great mix of history and fantasy – and a history and mythology was I wasn’t familiar with at all, so it was a refreshing backdrop.

What can I say about the animation? That’s tough one. I’m sure there’s a word to describe a style, but since I don’t know it, forgive me if it sounds like I’m butchering it. The animation could be called minimalist in one sense (the characters), but extremely colorful and detailed in another (the environments). It reminds me in some ways of The Justice League, which is one of my favorite cartoons. I don’t know if abstract is the right word, but that’s another way that I would describe it. it almost looks like a Picaso piece at times. It was so simplistic, yet vibrant at the same time. Some of the backgrounds also looked like mattes used in theater or even older movies. I don’t mean that as an insult either – in this setting it worked for me. IT was really nice to look at. Like the She, I also loved the look of the Vikings. It sort of reminded me of something out of Zelda. Again, that’s not an insult.  The simplie and abstract look somehow made them even more terrifying than if this was some high-end studio animation. The look was both appropriate and refreshing in today’s 3D animated world.  

The Secret of Kells

The characters were also interesting too. Brendan is curious and adventurous, which is the exact opposite of his uncle. Aisling is a lot like him, but with crazy powers. There is something that scares her though. Their friendship was fun and innocent. They were two children from very different worlds who grew fond of one another. Cellach is stubborn and cold. When Aidan shows up, he wreaks havoc as far as Cellach is concerned, but he’s the vehicle for Brendan reaching his full potential. Aidan also has a cat named Pangar Ban, who doesn’t have any dialogue (she’s a cat after all), but one of those characters who manages to leave an impression anyway. This cat has spunk.

Little kids might not like this movie, because they might not understand what is going on. It’s also not a loud, flashy, or in-your-face movie. There’s not a lot of things meant to keep the attention of small children. It’s great for adults or even young adults who appreciate something more subtle.

Rating: Thumbs up.

This movie review was written for your reading pleasure on March 1, 2015.