The Secret of Kells (2010)

While 3D animation becomes the dominant form of children’s entertainment at the movies, there are a fervent group of animation lovers who decry the death of traditional 2D animation. However, for those who are willing to search, there’s always a traditionally animated film like The Secret of Kells to be discovered amid the deluge of popular 3D animated flicks.

Brendan (Evan McGuire) is a young lad who lives with a group of scribes in a tiny village surrounded by dangerous, haunted woods. The town abbot, Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), tells the inhabitants to avoid the outside world at all cost. But the outside world comes to them when Brother Tang (Liam Hourican) visits and brings along an incredible book.

The setup lays the groundwork for a fantastic array of possibilities. Here is the potential for a story about two vying sensibilities. Celleach is conservative and protective to the point of cutting off all exploration and creativity for fear of danger, while Tang is liberal with the adventurous and creative spirit to the point that it get’s Brendan into deep trouble more than once.

The film creates a visually creative and fantastic world, tapping into that great imagination that Brendan is introduced to. Many shots are breathtaking, drawing for Celtic influences. However, there’s also a dark side to the visuals and some of the sequences are filled with unexpected and harrowing moments of visual terror.

Unfortunately, the film is bogged down in scene after scene of exposition. The film creates a fantastic world but wants to explain every nuance, give the back-story and lay down the mythos. The problem is that none of this actually helps the story, grinding everything to a halt in order to give information that is of little importance.

It would be better if the world was simply presented and the audience had to make sense of it. Instead, by trying to make a coherent mythos, the story ends up becoming unnecessarily contrived, giving explanations that aren’t needed and making certain sequences come off as unjustified when they could have been developed within the immediate story.

The film also suffers from inconsistent tonal shifts. It’s a piece that starts out in a very serious and dower way, but then progresses into the slapstick humor of the typical children’s animated flick. It’s not so much that the two elements can’t work together but that the transitions between the two are jarring. In a lot of ways, this film fees like an “Avatar: The Last Airbender” wannabe, but fails to find the balance achieved in that show.

It’s a film that desperately needs some pointers from the likes of Miyazaki. The film fails in the world-building and the balance between exposition and narrative, two of the strong suits of Miyazaki’s work. There are many fantastic sequences throughout the film, but they never come together into one cohesive whole, making for a film that is incomplete and unrealized.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing

  • I really wanted to like this, but you’re right, the constant exposition and feeling like you just want to fast forward to get a sense of the actual movie makes it so much less than it could have been. Very odd that it was nominated for an Oscar.

  • Jacob

    Can you please give examples of scenes that you thought had too much expositiion? Because most of it is only like 10 to 15 seconds and you DO have to work a little to understand certain thing.

    • There are at least a couple of elaborate history exposition scenes in the film. I don’t think they added much to the film, although they looked fantastic.

      • Jacob

        I guess you’re referring to the Colum Cille flashbacks. Both of which were Brendan’s interpretation of Colum Cille and his legacy. The rumors of him having a third eye and three arms with twelve fingers on each were just the brothers exaggerating of how great he was. In a way it’s very Tongue in Cheek of the exagerrated interpretations of Ireland folk figures. The bit of Sinners being blinded when staring at the book symbolizes Brendan overcoming the fears fed to him by the abbot as he ventures to the forest later on without the movie telling us this. The second is where Aiden explains to Brendan the origins of the eye of Colum Cille. The eye is just a plot device and about Colum Cille praying for a worthy successor on his deathbed, that symbolizes miracles happening as Brendan prooves himself truly worthy and growing up to be the great artist he wanted to be. Personally, I think if the movie were too expository it would give this whole lesson why the book was started, or how Crom Cruach killed Aisilng’s people or what happened to Brendan’s parents or what happened to Crom’s followers.

        P.S. I would like to know how the movie was contrived. Maybe when Aisling agreed to help brendan get the eye of Crom despite her telling him what it did to her people. This was to symbolize Christianity and Paganism having the darkness being turned to light for both sides as the book was both a gospel book and a model of paganistic imagery.

        I would write all about the greatness of this movie but this comment would be like 20 paragraphs long if I do so.