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"The Secret of Kells": Yes, It Really Is That Good

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The Secret of Kells is an Irish animated film that premiered to rave reviews and was nominated for Best Animated Picture at the 2010 Academy Awards. (It lost to Pixar’s Up). Does it really deserve all that praise and hype? I myself was a bit skeptical, but after hearing nothing but good things, I decided to give it a go. The answer is yes. Yes, it really deserve all that praise. It really is that good.

The story takes place in Kells, an abbey in Ireland. This abbey, led by Abbot Cellach, is building a large wall to keep the barbaric Vikings out. His nephew, Brendan, works in the scriptorium as an apprentice. Brendan hears stories of, and eventually meets, Aidan of Iona (and his cat Pangur Bán), a master illuminator who’s working on The Book of Iona (eventually called The Book of Kells), a beautifully illustrated Bible that will bring light and hope to the world. Aiden befriends Brendan and begins to teach him the ways of a master illuminator. Abbot Cellach disapproves of Brendan spending his time this way when he should be helping to build the wall. Brendan disobeys his uncle’s orders and goes outside of the walls to get berries for Aiden to make ink. While in the forest he meets an adorable wolf-girl-spirit-thing named Aisling and the two become friends. All the while, the Vikings are getting closer to the Abbey.

First off, The Secret of Kells is one of the most stunningly beautiful films I have ever seen. The makers had a relatively low budget of $9 million (as opposed to The Princess and the Frog‘s $105 million budget) and instead of trying to overextend themselves and have complicated designs and choppy animation, they used a relatively simple yet gorgeous heavily stylized animation style, much like Samurai Jack or Spectacular Spider-Man. (At one point early on in the film, when various characters are telling over a story it becomes even more stylized.) The results are fantastic. Then animation is especially enjoyable when it comes to Aisling—she moves like some sort of graceful animal and her hair flows with her in a way that is wonderful to watch. As for the backgrounds, well, they’re quite beautiful as well. The colors are fantastically vivid, especially the forest scenes. Kells also uses perspective in a rather stylized manner that’s reminiscent of Richard William’s The Thief and the Cobbler, except that the backgrounds are made up of more than just checkerboards. The Secret of Kells is a visual treat, and worth seeing just for that aspect alone.

The movie is far from perfect, though it’s not often you can complain that a movie is too short (75 minutes) rather than being too long. This wouldn’t be a problem if the ending didn’t feel a little rushed and incomplete, but I guess that can be blamed on the budget. It also pretty much assumes you know I have a decent knowledge of Irish lore. I had to look up who Crom Cruach was. (He’s a pre-Christian Irish deity.) Heck, they don’t even mention that The Book of Kells is a Bible, though that’s pretty important when it comes to explaining why it’s so important and will give hope to the people. But don’t let these two problems stop you from seeing the film. It’s enjoyable despite these gaps.

The DVD also comes with a surprisingly decent number of special features. First off is a decent audio commentary that’s informative, but does get a little boring in a few places. There’s also an entertaining video showing the voice recording process, though it runs on a tad too long. Pencil-to-Picture is a few scenes from the film shown side-by-side with the storyboards/pencil tests. The Directors Presentation is a behind-the-scenes slide show with the director’s commentary. The Early Concept Trailer shows what the film could’ve been; it’s interesting, though I’m glad they decided to use a different animation style in the final film. It also includes a director’s commentary. Aisling at the Oscars is a seventeen-second animated clip of Aisling made especially for the Oscars (though the audio seems fairly poor for some reason). Finally, the US theatrical trailer is included as well. Considering the amount of special features the past few titles I reviewed had, these were all a real treat.

The Secret of Kells is a phenomenal film, not just because it is visually beautiful, but because it feels like no other animated film I’ve ever seen. Had it not been going up against Pixar’s Up it very well could’ve won Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards. It’s unique, and in a good way. As I said earlier, it’s worth seeing this film even if you don’t like the story, just to witness a visual masterpiece. I wish I’d have been able to review the Blu-ray.

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