For though we’ve all still got the Winter to look forward to with, no doubt, a handful of festive frolics in tow (Disney’s Tangled is certainly showing all the potential of a Christmas treat) the past ten months have already provided said fans with such welcome delights as handy tips for dragon trainers, babysitting supervillains, super-intelligent aliens and the return of not only everyone’s favourite ogre (plus donkey) but a whole toybox full of familiar faces back for one final hurrah!
So it’s somewhat understandable that amongst such animated bedfellows a decidedly low key animation set in the 9th century inspired by both Celtic mythology and a 1, 200 year old illuminated manuscript is less likely to set the box office alight than a bunch of talking owls. Which is, in itself, a wholly tragic thing as “The Secret Of Kells” easily ranks amongst the best animated films of the year and is, in all probability, one of the most visually arresting, stylish and downright beautiful looking pieces of animation to emerge in many a year.
The story itself is a relatively simple one and involves Brendan, a young monk, whose life is forever changed when Brother Aiden, a master illuminator and figure in many a mistold myth, arrives at the monastery one day carrying a mysterious and magical book young Brendan had previously only heard about in legend. An impromptu journey into the nearby enchanted forest to procure gall nuts for Aiden with which to make the ink necessary to continue the Book leads Brendan on a magical adventure in which he meets a mysterious wolf-girl called Aisling, fights an ancient serpent god and finally faces up to a horde of bloodthirsty vikings.
Granted, the story is fairly predictable as far as 9th century fantasy-tinged Irish rites of passage stories go but that is never to the detriment of the film as its true strength lies in its utterly breathtaking visual style … a visual style that is certain to keep you captivated through all of the films 76 minute running time.
For a film based upon a manuscript it’s perhaps fitting that each and every frame should look as if it was torn from the very pages of The Book itself, such is the sheer abundance of colour, vibrancy and beauty on display. The darker aspects of the narrative are inked in deep reds and bold blacks and the scenes in which Brendan and Aisling explore the forest are truly a sight to behold with images, shapes and colours that appear to burst from the screen, hijack your brain and gently massage your eyeballs.
Just as each and every page of the Book of Kells is packed full of minute detail every inch of the screen is filled with patterns, shapes and all manner of intricate imagery from the dense scribblings that cover the wall of Abbott Cellach’s tower to the flora and fauna that fill every last inch of Ainsling’s world with an incandescent splendour. And in an era of painstakingly rendered fur, realistic CG water and photo realsitic humans it’s refreshing to see a film that takes its distinct style and lack of realism and exploits it for all its worth as any traces of perspective, depth or dimension are discarded as we witness Brendan’s world rendered in stunning 2D!
Eschewing the typical approach of hiring an all star cast to voice the characters the cast of “The Secret of Kells” is surprisingly low key with only Brendan Gleeson in the pivotal role of Abbot Cellach providing the film with any “star power”. The score meanwhile, by French composer Bruno Coluais and Irish folk group Kíla, underscores the film perfectly highlighting the mystical aspects of Brendan’s adventures whilst balancing the darker, more brooding menace of the approaching Viking hordes with the earlier comical scenes involving the other monks. And whilst my heart dropped momentarily when Aisling burst into song midway through the film the result was, fortunately, far removed from the concept of a bunch of reputedly wild animals joining each other in a few verses of an Elton John number but a gentle melody that provided the scene with a hauntingly ethereal quality.
Charming characters, sumptuous visuals, a mythologically rich narrative and a truly magical tale … the overall effect is one that recalls early Ghibli with its emphasis on traditional myths and legends and I was often reminded of Isao Takahata’s 1968 film “The Little Norse Prince” as Brendan’s journey unfolded before my eyes. So it’s ultimately comforting that, like Ghibli, the film emerges an animation masterclass, a unique gem and a strong contender for best animated feature of 2010 … yes, even better than Woody and Co.
So it’s a slight disappointment to report that for a film so spellbinding, so mesmerising and so unforgettable the Blu-ray release is, shall we say, a little on the sparse side. Whilst the transfer is pin sharp, with colours that explode from your TV and a bold clarity to the images on screen the extra material, whilst mildly diverting, is very poor when compared to your typical Blu-ray release.
A handful (just over 9 minutes worth) of deleted scenes are as lusciously animated as the rest of the feature and one can only ask why they weren’t in the final cut as their inclusion would still have seen the film come in under the 90 minute mark. Elsewhere we have the film’s trailer and three short featurettes on compositing (6:37), digital ink and paint (3:23) and effects (3:41) that whilst interesting would have been far better incorporated into a longer, more detailed documentary. Pick of the admittedly sparse bunch would have to be “Cuilin Dualach”, a charming short that runs a little over 12 minutes and tells the tale of a baby born with his head on back to front! But that, folks, is that … no commentary, no storyboard comparisons and, saddest omission of all, no documentary exploring the mythology behind the film and The Book itself.
But hey, at the end of the day it’s the film itself that matters the most and “The Secret of Kells” is a film that is sure to enchant a whole new generation of film lover long after the next storage medium has run its inevitable course. A film every bit as enchanting as the Book which inspired it and one that I recommend wholeheartedly to those who prefer their animation with a little less CGI and a touch more old-fashioned whimsy.