Here is a film with which I had no expectations whatsoever. I don't know the filmmaker (Tomm Moore), the studio (Gébéka Films), or the story. But in the end, all I can say is The Secret of Kells is a fantastic movie. Great animation, great story, great acting, and it is short yet complete.
I thought the film would seem a little strange to someone with no prior knowledge of Celtic mythology. But that proved not to be the case.
The film takes place in Ireland in the 9th century and follows twelve year-old Brendan. An adventurous boy by nature, Brendan is in the care and shadow of his strict uncle Abbot, whose sole concern is the safety of the Kells Village from the oncoming Viking attacks (in Irish terminology, the Vikings are referred to as "Norsemen"). One day, the village receives an elderly visitor, Brother Aidan, who introduces Brendan to the valuable and fantastical Book of Kells. As the film continues, Aidan inspires Brendan to develop his imagination and complete the book, all the while narrowly avoiding the severe disapproval of his uncle.
The art direction, from a first glance, is reminiscent of the shows currently on Cartoon Network. This, surprisingly, helps to move the story along. The combination of simplicity with fantasy setting keeps the story from getting caught up in technological detail. But that's not to say the art direction is terrible. Quite the opposite: it has one of the best art directions I have seen in any animated feature of the last decade.
The color scheme of the movie is very distinctive. The film's primary colors are, unsurprisingly, green (an Irish tradition) and white (which gives the sense of the world surrounding the Irish). The most drastic change in the color scheme comes at two points: when Brendan is learning and working on the Book of Kells, the palette is made up of various warm colors, giving a feeling of comfort while Brendan becomes engaged in his new found interest; the other points are the scenes involving the Vikings (aka the Norsemen) where the dominating color is red, signaling danger and anger.
The music is an impressive component of the film. Some of the score is provided by French composer Bruno Coulais, who provided a haunting ambient score woven with Celtic melodies. The score goes beautifully with the fantasy-related sequences. Elsewhere, music is provided by Kíla, a Celtic folk group, whose sound adds a feeling of authenticity to the scenes within the Kells village. The psychological aspects of Coulais's score with Kíla's Ireland meets the World sound makes for one impressive soundtrack.
It is exciting to see a country's unknown animation talent getting unleashed. I have never known of any Irish animation, not even indie (I've probably missed something, feel free to correct me). But The Secret of Kells has given me hope for hand-drawn animation. I don't know what's next for Ireland. Technically, the film is one third Irish, one third Belgian, and one third French. Still, for me, the film is all Irish. The Irish have always had a film scene, and this may be just a new addition to their country's film culture. Or it could be the start of something interesting....