“The Secret of the Kells”: An Illuminated Manuscript Brought to Life

"The Secret of Kells" is hand-drawn artistry.

The whole thing reads like a grand optical illusion. While the last two movies I reviewed – “The Iron Giant” and “Grave of the Fireflies” – sought to subvert animation stereotypes, Cartoon Saloon’s 2009 The Secret of the Kells selects and spotlights the treasures of hand-drawn artistry still undiscovered. The visual style is very consciously confined to the two-dimensional but it breathes with a magic, a life. Kells plays between the boundaries of book and film, not only because of its technique but because this tale is one of a quest to recapture – or more aptly, to set free – the medium of written communication. It does so in its final montage, an animated interpretation of an illuminated manuscript, and the payoff is extraordinary.

Everything about the piece is touched by a degree of strangeness – an elaborate drawing style, flattened dimensions, archaic Celtic words spoken with affected accents and in hushed tones. It takes a bit to acclimate to the film’s visual tricks (and it has many). Some elements will be watercolor, some chalk, some classically animated, some wholly incomprehensible. This is not a world one sinks immediately into, but one which plays out craftily before our eyes, prodding us to see anew.

Depth of field has been relinquished. A flock of sheep is portrayed not as scattered about a field, but as stacked across the screen, one on top of another, much like the patterns which build and define this story. There is never too little to occupy our visual attention. The tale teases at us, whispering, revealing its majestic potential only at choice moments. It hints at the world beyond its flattened walls and as I watched, I felt once more like a child seeking magic, forests, myth and legend. At one point, our young boy protagonist Brendan falls into a mythical realm and it is an arresting image to see the screen filled with color, but utterly without lines, an infinite depth decorated only by curlicues of light.

The soundtrack is gorgeously refreshing, bright and mythical strains of folk voices and airy pipes. It’s a delight to be mixed up with Celtic words we cannot understand – its atmosphere thickened by the language’s complexity and a story we can only really grasp the surface of.

In one particularly lovely scene, the screen is divided as a triptych, three cut-out windows looking out onto a mosaic of watercolor scenery, painted in iridescent, glowing hues. Our characters intercut this illusion of stained glass, walking from one panel to the next. What is amazing here is not merely the visual illustriousness; behind this fantastic façade is the idea that even in the 21st century, there are still fresh and new things to be discovered within the realm of animation, for those ready to venture beyond its walls.

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