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Movie Review & Director Interview – The Secret of Kells: Illuminating Tale of Creativity

“The Secret of Kells” is an “illuminating” tale about friendship, wisdom, overcoming fear, and discovering your own creativity. It has splendid visual, haunting music, and amazing storyline built upon historical facts.

4.5 Starfish our of 5

Do you know the name of the world’s most visually stunning book?  It is illuminated, called The Book of Kells.  It was produced in the early 8th century in Scotland.  The book of Kells went on a long and arduous journey, somehow made its way to Trinity College in Dublin, where it resides today.  The rest in Real history!

The Oscar-nominated animation “The Secret of Kells” is a story about a young orphaned boy Brendan, who lives in the Abby of Kells, under siege of the raiding Vikings.  Brendan’s only family is his strict uncle, the powerful Abbott Cellach of Kells.  Although the Abbott loves his nephew, he doesn’t have the right way.

Soon, Brother Aidan, a master illuminator from a foreign land, came to the walled city of Kells.  He took Brendan under his wings and sent him on a journey to go into the forest to seek a special kind of berry: its juice can be made into emerald green-colored ink for writing “The Book of Kells,” yet to be finished.  Brother Aidan brought this sacred book with him, a book overflowing with wisdom and brilliant artistry, to be completed by Brendan!

In the mysterious forest, Brendan is at first terrified of the strange sights and sounds.  He encounters a fairy that is unlike any other fairy in fairy tales.  Her name is Aisling.  She has many qualities that are lacking in ordinary fairies: She is completely white who can change into a wolf in an instant.  She has territorial instinct just like a wolf, but unlike a wolf, she can climb trees!  She does not have wings and is more agile on her feet. 

I noticed that Brendan has a crush on Aisling.  It is hard to impress a fairy, but Brendan tried his best and eventually succeeded!  Together, the two must join forces to stop the Viking’s invasion and find a magic crystal, so that Brendan can finish the last pages of the Sacred Book.

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I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview director Tomm Moore from Ireland who made The Secret of Kells as his first feature length animation.  I asked him what inspired him to become a filmmaker in animation.  “When I was a child I loved comics and animation,” said Moore, “The Don Bluth studio which made The Land Before Time and An American Tale had relocated to Dublin, so I dreamed of working there. I was a member of Young Irish Filmmakers, a group in my hometown of Kilkenny for children and young people who were interested in making their own films. I had a school friend whose aunt worked for Don Bluth and we got a tour of the studio in Dublin.”

Moore studied in the college Don Bluth helped set up - Ballyfermot Senior College but by the time he graduated, they had returned to the US. So he set up his own studio Cartoon Saloon with some friends back in the premises of Young Irish Filmmakers in Kilkenny.

My favorite characters are Brendan and Aisling.  Brendan is faithful, loyal, curious, hard-working, loves literature, and through Brother Aidan, discovers his own hidden artistic talents.  I am a master at art, just like Brendan, though my parents discovered my talents much earlier, as soon as I started drawing when I was three.  I consider myself a better artist than a film critic, because I have been creating art for a much longer time than reviewing movies! 

I also share a great imagination and love for nature with Brendan.  I love to see wild animals in the natural ecosystem.  I also wrote and illustrated lots of books, such as “Journey to Land,” about the adventures of a pack of African cheetahs, and books about our garden.  In my view, imagination is only “magic” to those who don’t understand it.  To those who have imagination, art is simply a natural way to express that imagination.

I like Aisling because she acts most like a real kid.  She is a free spirit, and loyal to Brendan.  One of my favorite scenes is when Aisling magically turns Pangur Ban (Brother Aidan’s mysterious cat with differing eye colors!) into a spirit as she sang a beautiful, haunting song. 

According to director Moore, “Aisling is based a little on my younger sister, she had a similar personality, (a little pest!) and she had big eyes and bushy eyebrows, pink knees from climbing trees and playing outdoors and pale skin. She was also a talented singer from a young age. I made several designs of her to try and find a fairy type character but also one that felt like a real little girl, so I based it on my sister. Once I had something I was happy with I turned to Barry Reynolds who was a college classmate of mine who took my first designs and made the final versions of all the characters you see in the film.”

I asked Moore if Aisling was made up or based on Ireland legand, he said, “She's mostly made up as a representation of all the old Pagan gods and creatures who went before. But in Ireland there is a tradition of poetry called ‘Aisling Poems’ as Aisling means dream or vision in Gealic.”

“In these poems a beautiful young woman will appear to the poet in a dream representing Ireland. I thought it was fun to make her a little girl instead of a beautiful woman. Also the poem you hear her speak in the opening scene is based on a very ancient poem called the Song of Tuan Mac Cairill. He was one of the ancient race of the Tuatha De Dannann left behind when they disappeared underground and became what we call fairies today. He survived in the world of men by transforming into a Stag, a Wolf Into a salmon and so on, and we took that idea and applied it to Aisling.”

“The Secret of Kells” is an “illuminating” tale about friendship, wisdom, overcoming fear, and discovering your own creativity.  It has splendid visual, haunting music, and amazing storyline built upon historical facts.  I think this movie would appeal to a wide audience, although younger kids may be disturbed by the war scenes.

I give the film 4.5 starfish.  It’s Perrific!  I noticed that the cat, Pangur Ban, did not age as most of the human characters, nor did the old man with long beard who first discovered that Brendan was gone from his cell.  Are they magic?  I asked director Moore.  “I get asked this all the time :) Well, for me, Pangur Ban is sort of a symbol of Aidan and Iona, she may be magical like Aisling,” said Moore. “Pabgur Ban IS kind of immortal because a monk wrote about his cat Pangur Ban in a poem that’s in one of the manuscripts from that period, so school kids in Ireland learn about Pangur Ban to this day.  Or maybe the cat at the end is her daughter :)!”  Which one do you think is more likely?

There were many similarities between “The Secret of Kells” and other “Perrific” animations.  It is visually stunning like one of my all-time favorites, the 5-starfish-rated “Azur & Asmar,” directed by the French animation master Michel Ocelot.  Monsieur Ocelot has become a dear friend of mine since I interviewed him in San Francisco last year.  Also the Princess Charnsous Sabah in “Azur & Asmar” was locked up in the palace and not allowed to leave; just like Brendan was forbidden to leave the walled fortress of Kells.

Brendan, just like Hiccup in “How to Train Your Dragon,” lived a thrilling double life.  At the start of the film, Brendan was always thinking about what his uncle the Abbott Cellach would do to punish him.  Once he befriended Aisling, he forgot all about his worries and lost track of time.  Both Brendan and Hiccup lost their moms and had a strict father or father figure in their lives, who lacked confidence in the boys.  Both boys violated the rule of the leader of the village, however, such violations transformed their lives permanently for good.  Each befriended a mystical creature who became their ally.  But Toothless is more than an ally, he gradually turned into a pet once Hiccup tamed him!  Aisling, however, kept her wild spirit and independence.

I noticed that the Vikings in this film have eyes that are like glowing balls with dim light.  They are heartless and don’t look human at all.  The Vikings show a lack of respect for artistry and human knowledge, as they rip the pages of the sacred Book of Kells.

While other films have more complex visuals, “The Secret of Kells” succeeds in its own unique visual style: simple but elegant.  The lines that make up the human characters and objects are bold, decisive, and beautiful, suffused with splashes of vivid colors.  Adorned with priceless jewels, with a bright golden cover and pages that seemed to glow from within, The Book of Kells represents the power of art, literature, and human creativity itself.

Friendship can heal your worries.  The path to enlightenment takes courage, creativity, and perseverance.


I am delighted to see that director Tomm Moore has my review "A Perrific Review" of this film featured on the top of his own blog: