The Book of Kells, the most famous example of Irish manuscript illumination from the early Middle Ages, is the inspiration for this European animated film, which tells how a young monastic novice named Brendan was instrumental in not only saving the precious volume from destructive Viking marauders but in completing it. It’s a fanciful tale, of course, but one grounded in the dark history of the period—the elaborately decorated Gospel book was apparently created around 800 AD amidst attacks by Norsemen; though scholarly opinions differ about where it was begun (some suggest the island monastery of Iona), most researchers agree that it was at least completed at the Abbey of Kells north of Dublin, where it remained until the seventeenth century. And it’s told in imagery that reflects both old-style, hand-drawn, highly stylized cinematic visuals with others mimicking the intricate designs of the manuscript’s elaborate initials.
Carrot-top Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) is an energetic tyke fascinated by the work of the ebullient scribes in the scriptorium of Kells, but his uncle, the abbot (Brendan Gleeson), is single-mindedly intent on building a huge wall around the community to ward off the dreaded Northmen. (One might compare his obsession with that of the priest in William Golding’s “The Spire.”) Arriving in flight from Iona is master illuminator Aidan (Mick Lally), a genial fellow carrying the precious book, then called the Book of Iona, whose final pages remain to be decorated. Brendan is enchanted with the man and his work, and though his uncle has forbidden him to leave the monastic complex, he ventures into the nearby forest, accompanied by the visitor’s cat, to secure the berries Aidan needs to prepare a special green ink. There the boy encounters the forest sprite Aisling (Christen Mooney), who aids him in his task. But the arrival of the Vikings is also at hand.
The message of “The Secret of Kells” involves tenacity, resilience and the ultimate triumph of culture and imagination over not only mindless destruction but also prosaic pragmatism. But the glory of the film lies not so much in the screenplay by Fabrice Ziolkowski but in the images conjured up by a small army of animators. Much of the picture features a charmingly flat, exaggerated style somewhat reminiscent of that employed in the wonderful “Sita Sings the Blues.” But the forest scenes show some Japanese influence, and when the Northmen appear the visuals take on a surrealistic quality oddly reminiscent of the Warner Bros. classic “What’s Opera, Doc,” though without the tongue-in-cheek feel.
And when the film brings the pages of the Book of Kells, as the Book of Iona is rechristened in this telling, to life, the effect is positively magical.
This is a rather specialized picture, very unlike the usual children’s fare, and its combination of mild humor and ominous threats won’t appeal to kids accustomed to more straightforwardly appealing efforts. But as an example of sophisticated animation, this should certainly be appreciated by adult connoisseurs—especially those already familiar with the actual Book of Kells. But admittedly that’s not a very large group.