Majestic animation fails to conjure a sense of enchantment in The Secret of Kells, a beautiful two-dimensional work devoid of dramatic vigor. Tomm Moore’s film has been hand-drawn (with dashes of strategically employed CG) to resemble a medieval painting come to life, awash in multiple planes of flat figures and environments spiraling both inward and outward. Colors ignite as circular and angular lines collide, thereby creating a thrilling sense of visual conflict that mirrors the narrative’s battle between harmonious and destructive forces. Calling on Celtic, Biblical, and pagan imagery to create a fluid old world/new world dynamic in which luminescent explosions and menacing shadows consume a frame prone to feature woodcarving-esque borders and triptych split-screen compositions, Kells is something of a wonder to behold.
That’s not, however, the same thing as a wonder to sit through, as there’s little spark to its tale of a young boy named Brendan (Evan McGuire) who, in a 9th-century abbey in Kells, Ireland, disobeys his uncle Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), who’s driven to protect their home from incoming Viking hordes with a giant wall, by helping famed Scottish illustrator Brother Aidan (Mick Lally) finish his great Book of Iona. Much hullabaloo ensues, most of it involving Brendan being scolded by the Abbot and getting assistance in his mission from a forest fairy, yet the film’s look outpaces its story throughout. Heroic quests and questions of bravery, prudence, and faith abound, the latter epitomized by the Book of Iona’s status as some sort of holy text destined to “turn darkness into light.”
The material’s deep debt to folklore recalls the work of Hayao Miyazaki, but it never results in a requisite emotional or visceral jolt, its plot particulars too schematic and underdeveloped to engender serious engagement, and thus compelling only insofar as they provide opportunities for visual inventiveness. Of that there is an abundance, from the horned Viking swordsmen whose black shapes choke the color of the surrounding countryside, to the concentric circles of the forest greenery and the firework sparkles of the fairy’s miraculous song. Nonetheless, though magical as an aesthetic showcase, Kells otherwise zips through its mundane fable without making much of an impression.