FOR A MATURE AUDIENCE, the secret to enjoying The Secret of Kells is to ignore the plot – it’s for and about children. But one can hope—and that’s a stretch—that a boy’s passion for the written word will resonate with children of the digital age.
The animated film offers the story of a young boy, Brendan (Evan McGuire), living in a heavily fortified medieval village, where inhabitants are fearful of attacks by Viking raiders. The nephew of the village’s religious patriarch, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), Brendan spends much of his time in the monastery’s scriptorium cultivating an interest in scribal arts. Aidan of Iona (Mick Lally) comes to Kells after Vikings have destroyed his own monastery and brings with him the ancient “Book of Kells,” which has yet to be completed. Aidan and his book stimulate Brendan’s creativity and fantasy to become a scribe himself. However, Abbot Cellach’s anxiety of foreign attacks extends to a tight reign over his nephew. Brendan is forbidden to leave the walls of Kells. He does, of course, and enters a dangerous, enchanted forest where he meets Aisling—a fairy wolf-girl who helps in his quest to complete the “Book of Kells.” The Secret of Kells does not stray from the gloom, death, and destruction of the Dark Ages. This may be a children’s movie, but the happy ending does not come quickly.
The film is in competition with itself. While the plot is for the children, the stylistic, hand-drawn, “2-D” artistry is for the adults. The attempted Old World enchantment is a cold stage for the adolescent appeal. However, the gorgeous design intricacies are the allure for adult audiences. But the visual pacing and plot do not match up. The story is simple; the flat, color-blocked characters are simple; the backdrop and the speed at which it changes is over-stimulating. At some points, the rapidity at which the artwork flashes across the screen conjures anxieties of Malcolm McDowell’s forced viewing party in A Clockwork Orange.
The film, as a whole, fails to make much of an impression, but the protagonist obsessed with the composition and maintenance of tangible text is refreshing. Brendan is a brave, ninth-century hero bent on preserving his culture’s history, but for the young audience, it isn’t clear why this is important. He does not have the luxury of many of the children viewing this film who document their lives in a virtual world, incessantly text-messaging and updating Facebook accounts. While the twenty-first century children may be at an advantage, avoiding life-threatening romps through mystical forests, what sense of responsibility do they learn or accept in the creation and dissemination of information? Audience members may agree with Abbot Cellach’s proclamation: “you can’t find out everything from books.” Of course not, we have the internet!
Kathryn Andryshak is a contributing writer for The Ithaca Post.