The Secret of Kells (2009)

Cartoon Saloon’s first feature delves deep into Irish history and folklore as it revolves around the mysterious illuminous text the Books of Kells and its inception in the 9th century. The Secret of Kells follows 12 year old Brendan (Evan McGuire), a young monk who has lived in the small town of Kells for as long as he can remember. Unable to pass the town’s walls thanks to the strict orders of his uncle, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson). With the help of his mentor and master illuminator, Brother Aiden (Mick Lally) and Aisling (Cristen Mooney), a mysterious fairy who lives in the forest around Kells, Brendan is able to work on his skills and add to the Book of Iona that Brother Aiden has been working to finish.

Directed by Cartoon Saloon co-founders Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, The Secret of Kells takes you into a world that is detached from all others. The small town of Kells sits in the middle of a forest with only a wall to protect them. As Abbot Callech becomes obsessed with building the wall, he forgets about the pure faith that is found within the pages of the book. The animation is beautifully done as the grey toned town clashes with the bright greens of the forest surrounding it. When we delve into Aisling’s world, it is spectacular with the trees taking their inspiration from Gustav Klimt’s Tree of Life incorporating Klimt’s signature swirls to encompass this all magical world. Compared to the dreary and structured town, there is a clear disconnect between the two worlds that live side by side.

Brendan, the film’s protagonist, is brought to life by Evan McGuire. McGuire brings that childlike wonder to the role as we are introduced to this mysterious world where Brendan lives, wanting to see what lies beyond the walls. His circular and free flowing features contrast with the linear designs of his uncle. Donning brighter clothes, Brendan physically and figuratively stands out as he wants to push himself out of his comfort zone. When it comes to venturing out into the forest, however, Aisling appears and brings us on an adventure full of magic and colour. Cristen Mooney’s performance is full of innocence as Aisling is dead set on protecting the forest and almost oblivious to the dangers and destruction that is en route. The clash between the two creates some natural conflict initially but they share a common bond thanks to their love of the natural land and the magic within it.

The two figures of authority represent Brendan’s conflicted sides. His uncle, Abbot Cellach is brilliantly voiced by Brendan Gleeson and is a harsh enforcer of rules and regulation. Brendan doesn’t feel fulfilled but also wants to impress his uncle regardless. On the other side, Brother Aiden has a more nurturing approach as he teaches Brendan how to become an illuminator and create his own pages. Mick Lally’s performance is calm and wholesome as he sees Brendan as a flicker of hope. Neither man is right or wrong and have their flaws, but they are super important to Brendan’s overall development and characterisation as they work as catalysts to the protagonist’s own internal conflict.

The music, composed by Bruno Coulais and Kíla is absolutely stellar, making the most of traditional Irish music. With varying tracks that help to enhance the atmosphere from the whimsical upbeat tracks that highlight Brendan’s excitement as he ventures through the forest or Aisling’s haunting spell rendition as she frees Brendan from the main tower in Kells, the music is as much a character as the actual characters. From the first moment, the music brings the entire film to life feeling both traditional and modern at the same time. There is something about the mix of tones and types of music that makes The Secret of Kells soundtrack feel new and refreshing.

Overall, The Secret of Kells is a wonderful debut and a brilliant start to Cartoon Saloon’s feature filmography. From the stunning animation, lovable characters and captivating soundtrack, The Secret of Kells is a film that deserves to be watched again and again so you can appreciate all of the beautiful details hidden within this gem of a film. Whether or not you know about the history of the Book of Kells or the Viking invasion, this film is an ideal starting point for young children and adults alike to learn and delve into Irish history and folklore.

What did you think of The Secret of Kells? Let me know in the comments below!

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