Directed By: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey
Starring: Evan McGuire, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally
Trivia: Aisling, the fairy girl, is named after a 17th-century genre of Irish poetry. Aisling is Irish for "dream vision." In an Aisling poem, the poet would describe receiving a vision of the spirit of Ireland, who appeared to him in the form of a beautiful young woman
The Academy Award for Best Animated Feature is a fairly recent addition to the Oscar ceremony, premiering at the 74th Awards show (the winner that year by the way, was 2001’s Shrek). Since then, I’ve had something of a love/hate relationship with this category, in that I love how it occasionally nominates obscure films, yet hate the fact that, when the winner is finally announced, it’s usually a movie geared towards kids (I enjoyed Ratatouille, which won the Oscar in 2007, but the best animated feature that year was the much more challenging, and adult-themed, Persepolis). Things got so bad for a while there that, from ‘03 to ‘08, only three movies were nominated instead of the usual five, with Pixar claiming the majority of the wins during this run. In the notes I took following the 2006 ceremony, where Happy Feet was the big winner, I wondered if it was time to abandon this particular category, seeing as nobody at the Academy seemed to take it seriously (though, to be fair, I was probably more upset that the very innovative A Scanner Darkly wasn’t even nominated that year).
Then, in 2009, the category rebounded in a big way. Yes, the films were still kid-centric, but, aside from there once again being five nominees, all were solid entertainment. The winner was Up!, one of my favorite Pixar movies, which beat out Coraline (a picture very much like The Nightmare Before Christmas, presenting a children’s tale with a significantly darker edge); The Fantastic Mr, Fox (directed by Wes Anderson and based on a Roald Dahl story, it was an animated feature that, in every way, felt like a Wes Anderson film); The Princess and the Frog (a return of sorts to “classic” Disney), and The Secret of Kells, which, until recently, I’d never seen.
Now that I have, I can say, unequivocally, it deserved its nomination. The Secret of Kells is a magical movie.
Set in Ireland in the Middle Ages, The Secret of Kells introduces us to Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), a young monk in training who resides at the Abbey of Kells, where his uncle Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) is the Abbot. With many of the surrounding villages falling victim to Viking raiders, Abbot Cellach has decided to build a wall around Kells, which he’s convinced will protect his Abbey from the Northern marauders. At first, Brendan supports the precautions undertaken by his uncle, but has a change of heart when Brother Aiden (Mick Lally), a master Illuminator from Iona, arrives at Kells. The only survivor of a Viking raid, Brother Aiden is working on a book many believe will be the greatest ever created, one so powerful it will turn darkness into light. Brother Aiden tries to convince the Abbot his wall won’t keep the Vikings out, and that, should an attack occur, the best course of action would be to flee, thus preventing the book from falling into the wrong hands. The Abbot, however, disagrees, and as he toils away at his wall, Brendan works diligently with Brother Aiden, who is bound and determined to finish the book as quickly as possible.
At one point, Brother Aiden sends Brendan into the nearby woods to search for a specific berry, used to create a brilliant green ink. Though forbidden to venture beyond the wall by his uncle, Brendan does as requested, and, accompanied by Brother Aiden’s pet cat Pangur Bán heads into the deep, dark forest surrounding the Abbey. Once there, he encounters a fairy named Aisling (Christen Mooney), who helps him find the needed berries. Impressed by his tenacity, Brother Aiden asks Brendan to compose the book’s most significant page, but with the Vikings getting closer and closer to Kells, there’s a good chance this very important book will never be completed.
It’s the animation that makes The Secret of Kells so enchanting, with patterns and shapes of all kinds filling the screen on a regular basis. Even Abbot Cellach’s plans for the wall possess an intricate beauty, and Brendan’s encounter with a dark spirit in the woods is chock full of geometric designs. Along with its unique animation style, The Secret of Kells has a mystical quality I always find endearing. In a truly breathtaking scene, Aisling transforms Pangur Bán into a spirit so he can help Brendan escape the dungeon his uncle has banished him to, a punishment for traveling outside the wall. As Pangur Bán glides through the air, Aisling serenades him with a Celtic-like tune she created just for him. While the entire movie is filled with gorgeous imagery, this sequence is, in my opinion, the finest The Secret of Kells has to offer.
To be honest, I’m kinda glad I wasn’t one of the voters asked to choose which of the five animated films from 2009 was best of the bunch (there should have actually been a 6th nominee: Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful Ponyo was also released that year). Having now seen all the nominees, I’m not sure which I would have selected, but, at the very least, 2009 renewed my confidence in the Best Animated Feature category, giving us five exceptional motion pictures, The Secret of Kells included, that, if chosen, would have absolutely deserved the award.