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