If there’s a muse for the art of animation, she sure was busy last year. Among her greatest hits: Ponyo, Coraline, Up, and this film, which is belatedly reaching our shores (though it did screen at the Santa Barbara International Film Fest). The Secret of Kells, you probably know, un-monkishly copies The Book of Kells, a 19th century Irish illuminated New Testament, exquisitely intricate and bafflingly eccentric in its interweaving of nature, fable, Biblical text, and Irish folk motifs. James Joyce claimed it as inspiration for the verbal fireworks in Finnegans Wake, and, today, the book is an Irish national treasure on display at Trinity College, where tourists line up daily.
Sadly, the implied promise of a feature-length cartoon based on this auspicious example of an early graphic novel isn’t quite borne out in the film’s hour and 10 minutes. For one thing, the magnificence of the book itself and its profound relationship to the remaking of Western Civilization gets distinctly shrunken by turning the story into a head-butting battle between young Brendan (who’s all about the book) and his over-protective older brother (who’s obsessed with abbey walls). The weirdest aspect is how small a role Christianity plays here. It’s no doubt an attempt to make the story more universally redemptive, but its net effect is to trivialize the mystery at the heart of creating Kells.
On the other hand, the animation dazzles. Taking its cartoon motifs from Kells and other Irish medieval works, Brendan’s adventure in the woods, his encounter with the stylized (and monstrous) Vikings, and the creation of the manuscript itself wow us in crazy geometric patterns, Celtic knots, and washes of forest forms that shift and re-form like a natural kaleidoscope.
Nether sexy nor unduly violent, the film’s still probably not for the kids. (At least not hopped-up American ones.) The Secret of Kells is a thing of unusual beauty from our brave new era of rich animations, and we should all pray this muse keeps busy in decades to come.