Film review: The Secret of Kells

Cover of the Blu-ray release of "The Secret of Kells".
Cover of the Blu-ray release of “The Secret of Kells”, showing Aisling peeking through the leaves.
The Secret of Kells is an animated film set in and around the Abbey of Kells in County Meath in Ireland. It is a fictional (and fantasy) retelling of how the Book of Kells was completed and what those at the Abbey had to go through to protect it.

Brendan has spent his life living with his uncle, the Abbott at the Abbey of Kells. His uncle spends all his time working on a large wall designed to keep the Viking raiders from destroying the abbey and all the villagers who live there. He has forbidden Brendan from going outside the walls, but when Aidan of Iona comes to the abbey after Iona is attacked by Vikings, Brendan goes to find some nuts used to make some of the ink Aidan uses for illuminating the Book of Iona.

In the forest, he meets Aisling, a mysterious girl who knows all about the forest and is also respected by all the animals, including the fearsome wolves which call the forest home. She helps Brendan find the nuts and shows him the beauty of the world outside the abbey walls.

When I first started watching this film, the animation style really threw me for a loop. It is a very unusual combination of 2D and 3D animation which gives everything a very flat feeling while still offering some depth. After researching this a little bit, it seems the animators were trying to give the film the feel of traditional Celtic drawings, and they succeeded magnificently.

Those averse to fantasy films can still enjoy this as the fantasy elements are mostly subtle and peripheral to a lot of the story. Those who like fantasy films can enjoy the fresh take on Irish and Celtic mythology, and the interweaving of actual historical information into the tale. There are a few stylized scary elements which could definitely frighten younger children, but those about 10 and up should be able to handle these scenes as they are not graphic or gory.

I loved this film, and I think it definitely deserves the Academy Award nomination it received. This is definitely a keeper!

Release Date: February 11, 2009 (Ireland/Belgium)
MPAA Rating: Unrated

MySF Rating: Five point zero stars
Family Friendliness: 95%


Alcohol/Drugs: 0
Language: 0
Nudity: 0
Sexuality: 0
Violence: 2 (some fantasy violence, some frightening imagery)

4 thoughts on “Film review: The Secret of Kells

  1. This movie is a true diamond in the rough where animation is concerned. The story is a fantasy retelling of the creation of the Irish illuminated manuscript: The Book of Kells. And, I think, the animators, trying to reflect the imagery of that old book, created a truly unique animation style that is neither American, nor Japanese Anime. That fact, in, and of itself is a breath of fresh air.

    The imagery is well defined by thick black curvalinear lines, and the entire screen is filled with large blocks of bright earthy colors to equal the amount of lush Irish green in the backgrounds. The film rarely reaches accurate depth perception, but instead maintains the flat style of the pre-Renaissance art it’s trying to emulate. Jointly, the use of effects animation in some of the fantasy sequences helps to recreate the magic of the shimmering gold leafed Celtic interlacing present in illuminated manuscripts like The Book of Kells. In contrast, the character animation is very contemporary in it’s charm. The character’s designs are simple and rounded, and their movements and facial expressions, coupled with the great voice acting, create true personalities that are relatable and enjoyable to watch. It’s like seeing ancient Celtic art come to life, while still maintaining the feel of being touched by a talented contemporary animator’s hand.

    The story is short and simple and decidedly not fast paced. It instead maintains the feel of an ancient fable, taking it’s time to reach a graphic novel level of energy when the climax finally arrives. One of the best features of the film is the music, composed by Bruno Coulais (who also did Coraline). It’s Celtic in nature, but also abstract, moody, and almost tribal in feel. It really takes the film to a whole other level.

    The Secret of Kells is definitely worthy of it’s Oscar nomination, and because of that, it deservingly received a much wider audience. And while some people, especially children, may not appreciate the film for what it is, most fans of art and animation can do nothing but sing it’s praises.

  2. Thank you for your comments. It sounds like you’ve thought about this a lot and I appreciate you sharing your insight into the film.

    1. No problem, I’m glad you appreciate it. I certainly don’t want to step on your review in any way. I think everyone’s opinion is valid as long as they have thoughtful reasoning behind it. I love animation as an art form, and for it’s entertainment value. I’ve honestly seen way too much of it not to have strong opinions about the details. I’m so glad you have this great site where I finally have a place to put some of my, otherwise, useless knowledge and opinions on the subject. Thanks. 🙂

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