I love 2D animated movies. With the rise of computers, there are very few around nowadays which is a great shame. I can admire and respect the work put in to even the very worst of them to some degree (even the god awful Titanic cartoon get some kudos for actually existing). What is rarer still is that one during the time of pixels, a hand-drawn feature is released that is so well done that it can topple all others and become one of my favorites in the medium. In 2010 Cartoon Saloon's The Secret of Kells did just that.
Based around the legend behind the Book of Kells, a 9th century Holy Bible illustrated with exquisitely intricate artwork, this fairy tale tells the story of Brendan, a young monk in training to complete the book. He is aided by his mentor Brother Aiden, the forest spirit Aisling (pronounced Ashling) and his uncle the Abbot Cellach (voiced by Brendan Gleeson). This was not a peaceful period in history as Viking attacks threaten the monastery, the townsfolk of Kells and the enchanted book itself.
The visual style takes inspiration from the real life book, with bright colours, incredible detail and a medieval sense of perspective. By just looking at it, you can see why it was nominated for Best Animated Feature in 2009 (it lost to Pixar's Up in a very competitive year). Take a look at some of the stills below - each one could easily be framed and mounted on a wall.
This unique aesthetic perfectly enhances the story, which is both personal and epic. The early scenes in the film where Brendan is getting to grips with his new life seem idyllic and even the wistful introduction of the forest spirit evokes a sense of wide eyed wonder that contrasts the dangers that are to come. It's not afraid to go as dark as a U rated movie can go either. The attack on the Abbey of Kells is brutal and uncompromising, with many citizens getting engulfed in the blood-red flames. It is the our main characters make hard decisions in order to keep the book safe, adding a melancholy gravitas not usually seen in such films.
While the book itself is of Christian origin, the writers were mainly influenced by Celtic mythology. Aisling herself is named after a spirit who appears as something of a muse to those in need. Her bouncy and upbeat character is certainly in keeping with this. The female apparitions are also said signal a rise in Christianity throughout Ireland or the whole of the United Kingdom - something that the Book of Kells most definitely brings. The ancient Irish deity Crom Cruach also appears but not without some changes to the legend. In the movie, he's represented as a dark snake like creature with magical stones for eyes and harsh angular curves. In reality he is often painted golden, with twelve human-like figures surrounding him. The name Crom Cruach means "bloody crooked one" and was once thought to be worshiped as a fertility god though historians believe that he may also have added sun god to the résumé - hence the gold. The surrounding figures would then represent the twelve months of the year. It's not all sunshine for his followers, however, as he demands human sacrifices. It's perhaps best that this piece of information was left out of a children's movie.
The Secret of Kells is a worthy addition to any library and sits nicely along side the best of Disney and Studio Ghibli. There is something here for all ages and audiences, with whimsical fantasy, strong history and tense action to make one hell of a good time. With Song of the Sea, Cartoon Saloon's equally exceptional follow up about to be released on DVD in November (you lucky Americans already have it), and their third movie arriving in 2017, let's hope this talented studio keeps these gems coming.