For animation buffs, 2009 was a truly historic year. Within those 12 months, audiences were treated to such delights as Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, Coraline, and Up (among others). This was arguably the strongest year for animated films since the art-style was first used for a feature film way back in 1938, the year Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in theaters. In such an unusually potent year for dazzling animated features, it's hard to blame audiences for overlooking the limited release of The Secret of Kells; an excellent film that demonstrates the strengths of the art style in a unique and stunning world.
Young Brendan, a twelve year old boy living in an enclosed Irish village, is a curious and creative individual who has his eyes opened to the world beyond when he ventures outside of the village one day and into an enchanted forest. There he meets a forest spirit named Aisling, who lets him explore the wondrous place lurking outside of his home.
The amount of creativity on display is impressive, particularly in the animation itself. Though influences from other animated films can be noticed, The Secret of Kells is truly unlike anything I've ever seen. The animation is, for the most part, intentionally flat, lending itself to storybook-style visuals, but with blossoming colors, amusing character designs, and some truly stunning sequences that are impossibly beautiful.
The Secret of Kells truly has it all: Likable characters, refreshing story, humor, appealing voice acting, and heart. It's not perfect by any means, though. At only 75 minutes in length (really closer to 70 if one doesn't count the credits) The Secret of Kells feels a tad rushed. The power of the visuals and the story could have easily supported a two hour feature. The relationship between Brendan and Aisling in particular begs for more development. Also, the character Abbot Cellach is a bit thin as a figure of opposition, only truly revealing any kind of dimensions in the last act.
The Secret of Kells benefits from a voice cast that features relative unknowns. The biggest name in the cast is Brendan Gleeson, who is immediately recognizable as Abbot Cellach, but nonetheless functions well in the role. Evan McGuire in the lead as Brendan is a vibrant and likable voice for his charming character, and his friend Aisling receives an equally strong performance by Christen Mooney.
Bruno Coulais' score is as delightful as the film it accompanies. It's a more textural score than one would expect from an animated film this side of Thomas Newman, but it works in the film's favor. Its Irish sensibilities are extremely appealing, and there's one brief song (performed by Christen Mooney) which is chillingly beautiful.
Though its brief length caps the story's potential somewhat, The Secret of Kells is still a visually stunning and fully absorbing film. The time flies right by, and there's a deceptive level of depth here that isn't commonly seen in animation. It has a wide enough appeal to work for any audience, but animation fans will appreciate it the most.
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