In the adult world, the delicate balance between indulging one’s curiosity and staying safe is disproportionately tipped toward the latter. Opposed to this scaredy-cat mentality, The Secret of Kells celebrates the magic and joy of discovery that only a child can know.
Said child is Brendan, a young monk who lives and works in an abbey in the wilderness. As Brendan goes about his daily tasks, the other monks are preparing for disaster. The Abbot has ordered the construction of a massive stone wall to protect the monks and refugees from ruthless invaders prowling across the countryside.
However, the Abbot’s plans are disrupted by the arrival of Brother Aidan, a famed traveler who is said to carry a book of powerful secrets. Brendan is enthralled by Aidan and is eventually recruited by the wanderer to help complete his magical manuscript, apparently a work in progress. In order to assist Aidan, Brendan must venture into the woods surrounding the abbey, somewhere the Abbot has forbidden him to go. But with the barbarians literally knocking at the gates, Brendan is caught between his desire to complete the book and his dread of the approaching destruction.
The exotic beauty of the wilderness presents an enticing new world to awe-struck Brendan. The art of these hand-drawn—yet lush—landscapes is simply gorgeous. An apt comparison could be made to Cartoon Network’s Samurai Jack, another animated work that created lush environments from simple, two-dimensional shapes.
Like Samurai Jack, the animation of The Secret of Kells revels in the two-dimensional space of the screen, sometimes even foregoing three-dimensional perspective to create (aptly enough) scenes resembling stained glass windows or tapestries. In a sense, The Secret of Kells is the ideal anti-3D film—the vibrant creativity of the animation accomplishes what 3-D glasses simply cannot. Dense forests, flowing streams, and brutal barbarians do not need to “pop out” of the screen to be immersive.
While exploring the forest, Brendan meets a young girl with magical powers named Aisling who provides him with much-needed guidance and protection. Together with Aisling, Brendan discovers both the dangers and the wonders that can be found outside the abbey’s walls. This may sound like a fairly traditional coming-of-age story, but the beautifully intricate animation compensates for the simplicity of the narrative. I do not have to empathize with Brendan to understand his sense of wonder—the magical world presented on the screen is enough to create the same feeling.
The simplicity of the story should not be counted against the film. This is a children’s movie, after all, so both the narrative and the “message” of the story are necessarily easy for children to understand. The film also reaches only 75 minutes, meaning it could be berated for its brevity. Some could go so far as to claim that it has little to offer besides pretty pictures.
But these criticisms are missing the point. The gorgeous animation captures the beauty of a world waiting to be discovered. Presented with several lurking dangers, Brendan must decide whether to explore this new realm or to huddle behind the Abbot’s wall. There is no need to spend more time orating or describing the conflict between the wonder and the fear—it is all right there on the screen.