The Secret of Kells (working title: Brendan and the Secret of Kells) is a 2009 Irish-French-Belgian animated fantasy film by Cartoon Saloon that premiered on 8 February 2009, at the 59th Berlin International Film Festival. It went into wide release in Belgium and France on 11 February, and in the Republic of Ireland on 3 March. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
This story is set in the eighth century and gives a fictionalised account of the creation of the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the Bible which has since become an Irish national treasure. Abbot Cellach, obsessed with building a mighty wall to keep marauding Viking raiders from destroying the early-Christian Abbey of Kells, expects his young nephew Brendan to follow in his footsteps. Brendan has apprenticed in the scriptorium of the monastery and has heard the story of Aidan of Iona, a master illuminator who is working on the Book of Iona. Aidan later comes to the monastery, accompanied by his cat Pangur Bán. Brother Aidan has escaped from the Vikings who have destroyed his own monastery, and had brought the unfinished Book of Iona with him. Taking Brendan under his wing, Aidan asks Brendan to venture into the forest to look for gall nuts to make ink, though the boy is fearful as he was forbidden to go into the forest by his uncle. Brendan eventually enters the forest, where he meets a forest spirit named Aisling. She is suspicious of Brendan at first, but soon befriends him after helping him find the gall nuts. Though Cellach learns of his adventure and forbids him from leaving the abbey's confines, Brendan secretly defies it as Aidan teaches him illumination while Aisling introduces him to a wider world.
Eventually, Brendan learns that Aidan needs his help to finish Book of Iona due to his failing eyes and hands, and the loss of the Eye of Collum-Cille, a special magnifying lens he possessed. Aidan reveals that his predecessor obtained it from Crom Cruach, a Celtic pagan deity, with whom Brendan had a frightful encounter prior. When Brendan tries to sneak out of the abbey to go to Crom's cave to obtain the other eye, he is caught and confined to his room by Cellach, who later gets into a disagreement with Aidan and demands that he leave when spring arrives. Having overheard the disagreement, Pangur Bán ventures into the forest to get Aisling's help. Aisling frees Brendan, using her magic to turn Pangur Bán into a spirit that retrieves the key to his room, and together they flee into the forest. When Brendan tells Aisling of his plan, she pleads with him not to go through with it, revealing that Crom Cruach killed her people and her mother and will surely kill him as well. Brendan tells her that he must retrieve the eye to complete the book. Eventually Aisling agrees to help him and manages to get Brendan into the cave, but appears to be dying by Crom's darkness in the process. After some struggling, Brendan defeats Crom by taking the god's remaining eye and imprisoning him in a circle of chalk where the blinded Crom consumes himself. With the eye in his possession, he exits the cave to find the cloak he had given to Aisling neatly folded amongst the cracked rock she had lifted to give him entrance inside. Leading away from the spot is a trail of flowers left by Aisling as proof she survived. Brendan returns to the Abbey and continues to help Aidan in secret.
Shortly thereafter, the Vikings arrive and Cellach locks his nephew and Aidan in the scriptorium as his plan to protect everyone from the invaders falls apart. Managing to escape the carnage, Brendan and Aidan are confronted in the woods by the Viking leader and a band of his men. The Viking leader scatters the pages of the book, and the Vikings prepare to kill the two helpless travellers. Before the Vikings can strike Brendan and Aidan down, Aisling's black wolves converge upon them, killing the Vikings. As Brendan and Aidan collect the pages of the book, Aisling, in the form of the white wolf, appears to Brendan before disappearing back into the forest. Brendan and Aidan continue to travel across Ireland, working on the Book of Iona over the years. Inheriting the book after Aidan's passing, the now-adult Brendan ends up back in the forest of his youth, where he again meets wolf-Aisling, and she guides him to the village. It turned out only the villagers who made it to the abbey tower survived, along with a guilt-ridden Cellach. Now near death, Cellach reunites with the nephew whom he thought had perished in the massacre long ago, and is able to see the completed Book of Kells.
The film closes with a set of scenes showing the completed illuminated pages which come to life as viewed.
- Evan McGuire as Brendan, the protagonist. Twelve-year-old Brendan is bright, imaginative and curious, but leads a sheltered life due to his uncle forbidding him from venturing outside the walls of Kells. Brendan is very interested in the art of illumination, and spends much of his time in the scriptorium with some of the Brothers in the abbey. He is recruited as Aidan's assistant to help finish his great book. His uncle Abbot Cellach, an approaching Viking horde, a snake god and his own fears stand in the way of bringing the finished book to the people.
- Brendan Gleeson as Abbot Cellach. A former illuminator himself, Abbot Cellach now uses his talents for the purposes of designing a wall to protect the Abbey of Kells from invasion. He is very concerned for everyone's safety, especially that of his nephew Brendan, to the point where he thinks of little else but the completion of his wall. Eventually, this leads to his downfall.
- Christen Mooney as Aisling, a fairy, related to the Tuatha De Danann, living in the woods outside of Kells. She is a protector of the forest, and doesn't like unwelcomed guests. At this point her age is uncertain, but she is likely to be hundreds of years old. Despite being terrified of Crom Cruach, the evil god that dwells in a cave deep within her forest, she becomes loyal to Brendan and does whatever she can to help him. She has many magical abilities, and often takes the form of a white wolf. In the beginning, she speaks like Tuan mac Cairill in the Lebor Gabála Érenn.
- Mick Lally as Brother Aidan; as the Vikings attacked the Scottish island of Iona, master illuminator Brother Aidan fled with his cat, Pangur Bán. In Kells, he acquires Brendan as an assistant.
- Michael McGrath as Adult Brendan.
- Liam Hourican as Brothers Tang and Leonardo, two illuminators from Asia and Italy respectively. The latter is implied to have perished in the invasion, whilst the former is present to witness the return of Brendan.
- Paul Tylack as Brother Assoua, an illuminator from Africa. He is implied to have died in the invasion.
- Paul Young as Brother Square, an illuminator from England. He is implied to have died in the invasion.
The film was very well received; it holds a 91% overall approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 78 reviews with an average rating of 7.6/10 with the critical consensus that "Beautifully drawn and refreshingly calm, The Secret of Kells hearkens back to animation's golden age with an enchanting tale inspired by Irish mythology." On Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 based on reviews from critics, the film has a score of 81 (indicating "universal acclaim") based on 20 reviews.
Some critics compared the film to Hayao Miyazaki's works such as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. www.movies.ie called it "a unique animated movie … beautifully made … has a magical other-worldly feel, with a script and visuals that reminded me of Hayao Miyazaki's movies (Spirited away etc..)… puts other 3D movies with bigger budgets to shame." Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal said that "it pay homage to Celtic culture and design, together with techniques and motifs that evoke Matisse, Miyazaki and the minimalist cartoons of UPA.” Gary Thompson of the Philadelphia Daily News said that The Secret of Kells "is noteworthy for its unique, ornate design, its moments of silence ... and gorgeous music."
Leslie Felperin of Variety Magazine praised the film as "Refreshingly different" and "absolutely luscious to behold". Jeremy W. Kaufmann of Ain't It Cool News called its animation "absolutely brilliant," and reviewers at Starlog called it "one of the greatest hand drawn independent animated movies of all time." Writing for The Los Angeles Times, Charles Solomon ranked the series the tenth best anime on his "Top 10".
The film is based on the story of the origin of the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament located in Dublin, Ireland. It also draws upon Celtic mythology, examples include its inclusion of Crom Cruach, a pre-Christian Irish deity and the reference to the poetic genre of Aislings, in which a poet is confronted by a dream or vision of a seeress, in the naming of the forest sprite encountered by Brendan. Wider mythological similarities have also been commented upon, such as parallels between Brendan's metaphysical battle with Crom Cruach and Beowulf's underwater encounter with Grendel's mother.
The Secret of Kells began development in 1999, when Tomm Moore and several of his friends were inspired by Richard Williams' The Thief and the Cobbler, Disney's Mulan and the works of Hayao Miyazaki, which based their visual style on the respective traditional art. They decided to do something similar to Studio Ghibli's films but with Irish art.
- 2008: Directors Finders Award at the Directors Finders Series in Ireland
- 2009: Audience Award at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival
- 2009: Audience Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival
- 2009: Roy E. Disney Award at Seattle's 2D Or Not 2D Film Festival
- 2009: Grand Prize at the Seoul International Cartoon and Animation Festival
- 2009: Audience Award at the 9th Kecskemét Animation Film Festival; Kecskemét City Prize at the 6th Festival of European Animated Feature Films and TV Specials
- 2010: European Animated Feature Award at the British Animation Awards
- 2009: Grand Prix Award for Best Film in the Annecy International Animated Film Festival
- 2009: Best Animated Film at the 22nd European Film Awards
- 2009: Best Animated Feature at the 37th Annie Awards
- 2010: Best Film at the 7th Irish Film and Television Awards
- 2010: Best Animated Feature Film at the 82nd Academy Awards
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