The Secret of Kells (2009)

the secret of kells

“I’ve seen suffering in the darkness, yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the book; the book that turned darkness into light.”

The Scoop: 2009 NR, directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey and starring Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, Brenden Gleeson and Mick Lally.

Tagline: No tagline.

Summary Capsule: A young monk befriends a fairy, defeats an evil deity, survives a Viking attack and illustrates a book. Somehow the last thing becomes his greatest accomplishment. 

Heather’s rating: Baaaaa!

Heather’s review: This is a movie that, up until last year, was widely unknown.  It’s an Irish/French/Beligan creation dreamed up far from Hollywood’s loud, boisterous crap, and it tells a story loosely based on Ireland’s mythology; not something the bigwigs typically consider to be a hit. The Secret of Kells originally wasn’t even guaranteed an American release, but in 2010 it came, seemingly out of nowhere, and was competing with Up, Coraline, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox for Best Animated Feature.

Since I never watch the Oscars, I didn’t know about this movie until a couple of months ago when Netflix recommended it to me. I’ve got a lot to thank that little company for; this movie is flat-out amazing and I’m kind of disappointed that it didn’t beat Up. No offense to Pixar’s fantastic film, but it would have been nice to see a lesser-known, traditionally animated beauty like this win.

The movie tells a story rich with mythology, legend and history about Brendan, a boy living in the Abbey of Kells who has to deal with the choice of doing what he is supposed to do or what he has a passion for. His uncle, the Abbott, is working everyone hard to build a huge wall around the abbey because the Northmen have been tearing through the country, heading toward Kells, and the abbot believes his wall is the abbey’s best chance at survival. Brendan has never been outside of the abbey (his uncle forbids it, saying it’s too dangerous), and spends his time either working for his uncle or listening to the stories of the other monks who tell of a famous religious text illuminated by a great man with three eyes (or is it arms?). It is said that any sinner who looks upon the sacred pages is immediately blinded.

His stable, calm life is overturned when Brother Aidan, one of the illuminators who worked on the book of Kells, arrives at the abbey, having barely escaped from the Northmen with the book.  Life gets complicated for the formerly sheltered child as his uncle and Aidan disagree on whether or not the book or the wall is more important, and whether or not Brendan can make that choice for himself.  Brendan ends up in the forest surrounding the abbey in order to find the berries needed for Brother Aidan’s ink, and in doing so sets in motion his great legacy.

Usually I write a review with the intent to bring a movie to the readers’ attention and give my opinion on whether or not they should see it. You’re all free to make your own decisions and this is just my opinion and whatnot, but this time I don’t care what you think; I’m ordering you to see this unbelievable movie. If you aren’t transfixed by the music and animation, you will be by the imagery and action. Should those fail to hold your attention, you’ll be captivated by the mythology and poetry that drive the story. If that’s not sufficient, the voice actors and dialogue perfectly convey humor and heart. If all of this isn’t enough, then I don’t know why you’re watching movies.

The director, Tomm Moore, stated that he did this movie to prove that there are things 2D animation can do that computers just can’t, and when the man sets out to prove something, he doesn’t mess around. I dare you to show me a frame of this movie — a frame — that isn’t beautiful enough to blow up and hang on your wall. I’ve been watching it streaming, but I fully intend to buy this on Blu-Ray in order to see it at its full potential.

The simple character designs are used to powerful effect against the gorgeous backgrounds, and all of it is reminiscent of the style of the real Book of Kells and similar religious texts of the day. The light effects spit in the face of Thomas Kinkade, and the…alright, I think you’ve gotten the point. The movie’s pretty, but how’s everything else?

The pacing is just perfect, never dragging at any point or leaving the audience behind. The music is great traditional Irish fun, and there’s one song in particular that is so hauntingly beautiful that it has made me cry at times.

And yet, just as one hates to admit to a spouse leaving toenail clippings on the carpet, this movie has shortcomings of its own. Most egregious (nay nearly the only one) in my mind is the drawing of the African guy’s face. No one else has but a line drawn for lips, and yet the one non-pale guy is wearing Trolli Gummi rings for a mouth. That took me back to World War II era Warner Bros and was very distracting from his character. When I managed to get that out of my mind, I couldn’t help-a but-a feel-as if -a the dialogue for Brother Leonardo remind-a me of someone with a talent for shelling turtles.

If those are the worst quibbles I can come up with, then why aren’t you watching this already? Go!

That ‘s what ends up in most non-Irish people’s kitchens on St. Patrick’s Day instead of actual food.


  • An illuminator is someone who draws incredibly complex and beautiful illustrations decked with gold and silver. You have no doubt seen these amazing creations at some point; in your history books at the very least.
  • This story is a very loose telling of the Book of Kells, but the book, along with many of the characters and events, have their place in Irish mythology and history.
  • Holy cow, the voice acting was great!
  • Update: I bought the Blu-Ray and Oh. My.

Groovy Quotes:

Brendan: Aidan is my friend. I’m helping him make the most incredible book in the whole world! He says it will turn darkness into light. Wait until you see it!
Aisling: Wait until you see the rest of my forest.

Aisling: Is this your cat?

Aidan: When they come, all we can do is run and hope that we are fast enough.

Brendan: You can’t find out everything from books, you know.
Aidan: I think I read that once.

Aidan: You will learn more from the rocks and the trees than any other place.

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