What happens when you put together an orphan living in a medieval abbey, a Celtic manuscript with magical powers, a spunky fairy residing in the forest, Vikings who are about to attack, and a serpent god who ends up devouring itself after being conquered by the chalk of destiny?
What you get is “The Secret of Kells,” a 75-minute independent Irish film directed by Tomm Moore and nominated for best animated feature at this year’s Academy Awards. It is a mesmerizing and poetic film that combines narrative momentum, conceptual depth, and an impressively stylized aesthetic.
This breathtaking adventure movie is original in many ways. “The Secret of Kells” is 95 percent hand-drawn, a technique nearly abandoned since the Disney Golden Age, and it stands out as a visual gem. Moore uses vibrant colors to create an innovative animation which weaves together medieval Celtic art and unique, contemporary imagery. On a plot level, the stakes in the film are not so much about losing one’s life as losing sacred spiritual knowledge.
The protagonist of “The Secret of Kells” is Brendan, a charming 12-year-old red-headed boy. The film follows Brendan’s journey as he tries to understand what is important, decides who to obey and disobey, and courageously searches for his own path. The authority he has always looked up to is his stern uncle, Abbot Cellach, who prioritizes, above all, the construction of a wall that would protect the abbey against a Viking attack. But Brendan soon meets Aidan, an abbot who believes in finishing and preserving a sacred manuscript. This manuscript will become the Book of Kells, today regarded as Ireland’s finest national treasure.
The misunderstanding Moore presents between Cellach and Aidan is the kind that could occur between a Silicon Valley tycoon and a Harvard Classics professor. The two abbots, one prioritizing physical defense and the other prioritizing books, synthesize an urgent dilemma: how does one choose between technological and intellectual development? Moore examines the power of material strength versus the power of ideas, and to what extent one is necessary for the other.
According to Cellach, “It is through the strength of our walls that [others] will come to trust the strength of our books,” and the goal of the construction is “to save civilization, to save our book.” Aidan, however, believes that “people must have books so they may have hope.”
The disagreement between the two raises the question of whether it is more important to prepare oneself for the future materially or spiritually, and whether it is more important to guard or to spread knowledge. Protection against the outside can manifest itself either in physical isolation or in intellectual and spiritual enlightenment. When the Vikings attack, Brendan says he must make ink, because while people die, their work remains, and walls can be destroyed more easily than books or faith.
In “The Secret of Kells,” Moore makes an important reconciliation between structured civilization and the natural world. As Brendan contemplates whether or not to disobey his uncle and venture out into the forest, Aidan tells him, “You learn more from the trees and rocks and see more miracles in the forest than in any other place—this is what the abbots knew long ago.” Moore links the two visually, showing similar symbols inside the abbey and outside in nature. In the forest, two orphans, a girl and a boy, one from the natural pagan world, and the other from Christianized civilization, meet and become friends. She teaches him to climb a tree, while he explains to her what a book is.
Moore’s message that spirituality is inherent in all living things is very powerful—somewhat similar to the message James Cameron was trying to portray in “Avatar” but without the commercial cheesiness.
“The Secret of Kells” is enchanting and imaginative. It is funny, at times scary, and always beautiful. Moore effortlessly intertwines historical facts with visions, legends, and imagination, as he presents universal ideas within the make-believe.