The Secret of Kells (2009)

Guys, I’ll be honest. I haven’t been this daunted by a review since Frozen. First you have the fact that this is an absolutely adored film with a lot of fans amongst readers of this very blog, and then you have the fact that the movie is Irish (well, an Irish-Franco-Belgian co-production) and the fact that I’m Irish (well, an Irish-Greek co-production) and that people seem to think that gives me some kind of special insight into this movie. I mean what are you expecting, that I’m just going to emerge from my turf cottage and impart some ancient Gaelic wisdom through the haze of my clay pipe?
"Yes, now quit stalling."

“Yes, now quit stalling.”

Okay, okay. Special insight. Special insight. Let me see. Okay. You know that episode of the Simpsons where they’re crossing from the American embassy into Australia and Homer’s all “Look boy! Now I’m in America! Now I’m in Australia! America! Australia!” and so on and so forth? Imagine an entire culture built around that joke and you have the Irish. We’re obsessed with borders. OBSESSED. The places in space and time where one thing ends and another starts. Ask an American when summer begins and they’ll say “Ohhhh, round about Memorial day, I guess?”. Ask an Irish person when summer begins and they’ll say “01 May. Midnight. Greenwich Mean time. And not a second before.” Borders are where things get weird, where things aren’t one thing or another. Why is Halloween so creepy? Because Samhain occurs on October 31st, right when Autumn ends and Winter begins on the Gaelic calendar. It’s at times like that when the…things in the other world can cross into ours. This fear and fascination with borders runs bone deep in the Irish psyche and ties into our historic relationship with the fairy realm. My wife is a dyed in the wool atheist, but she would not enter a fairy ring if you paid her. You just don’t do that.
“IT’S COMMON SENSE PEOPLE!”

“IT’S COMMON SENSE PEOPLE!”

Secret of Kells is a very Irish movie, and I don’t just mean because it draws so heavily on Irish mythology, art and history and features some of the greatest Irish actors to have been claimed as British by the English media at some point. It’s obessed with lines drawn between over here and over there, between light and dark, between faith and fear and between civilization and the wild wood.
It is also feckin smurges.

It is also feckin’ smurges.

So. Background. Secret of Kells is the product of Cartoon Saloon, which began as a loose animator’s collective in 1999 and has now produced four full length animated features, two of which have been nominated for Academy Awards. Despite this incredibly small filmography, Cartoon Saloon is already considered to be on a par with Studio Ghibli. Clearly, Irish Animation has come a long way since Daithí Lacha.
HE WAS TERRIBLE.

HE WAS TERRIBLE.

But is the praise justified? Yes. Is the movie as good as YES. Does it YES. Whatever hypothetical question I could ask the answer is almost definitely YES.
Let’s take a look.
AD

 So our story begins in the monastery of Kells where Brendan (Evan McGuire) is trying to catch a goose. Brendan lives with his uncle Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) who is obsessed with building a wall to keep the Vikings out (and he’s gonna make the Vikings pay for it too! It’s gonna be the best wall you ever saw! Terrific!). The opening scenes are done in the style of medieval manuscript, with very little perspective but a wealth of colour and tiny, intricate detail.
Monastery
Behind the characters in the foreground, far away in the distance you can see tiny people working on the wall, almost the size of ants, but perfectly animated. It perfectly sets up the movie as something unlike anything you’ve seen before, its style is neither Disney-esque nor anime-esque, but entirely its own.
Brendan is trying to catch the goose because its feathers are needed to make quills for illustrating. He’s helped by four monks; Brother Square from Britain, Brother Tang from China, Brother Leonardo from Italy and Brother Assoua from holeeeeeee shit are you kidding me?
Assoula
Alice Facepalm
Guys I have no idea. I swear to God. I have no idea who thought this design was a good idea, or why nobody stopped and said “Hey, this dude’s lips seem to be a smaller face within his face, is that normal?” I have no idea who’s at fault here so I’m just going to blame the Belgian animators who worked on this sequence and move on.
But why are all these monks from all around the world in this medieval Irish monastery anyway? Is this just some cack-handed attempt at political correctness (bit late for that anyway) by having a racially diverse monastery? Believe it or not, no. This is actually not that far from reality. If you wanted to learn to read Latin in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire the best schools on the continent were in the Irish monasteries and they often had student bodies as diverse as any modern college. Okay China is probably a bit of a stretch but Britain, Italy and Africa? Most definitely. Medieval Ireland was actually on a trade route that ran from the west coast, down to Spain and Portugal and all the way down to North Africa. And in fact, some of the dye used in the Book of Kells itself was imported all the way from Afghanistan.
The more you know
 The monks and Brendan run into Cellach, who coldly tells Brendan to bring him the plans for the wall he requested, and tells the monks that tomorrow they’re going to work on the wall. After he’s gone, the monks gripe aloud that they’re manuscript illuminating monks, not wall building monks, dammit. Brendan defends his uncle, saying that the wall is the only thing that will protect them when the Vikings come to Kells. The monks reply that, if they can’t work on the books to preserve civilization for future generations, why are they even building the wall in the first place? This is a very important point to remember when watching this movie and indeed when discussing this whole era of history; knowledge was so, so fragile back then. If you owned a book, it might be one of only a dozen copies in the entire world. Everything had to be copied by hand, painstakingly at huge expense. Every piece of writing that was lost, or stolen or burned was gone irretrievably. There’s one little background gag in the scriptorium where Brother Leonardo knocks some ink on a page that another monk, Brother Sergei, is working on.
Sergei
 What makes this joke funnier (or less funny, if you’re the kind of person who empathises with the tribulations of cartoon characters) is the knowledge that if the monks made the slightest mistake, just one single solitary mistake, they had to tear the whole page out and start again (hey, it’s the Word of God, not like you can half-ass it). And it’s not like this was just an ordinary page of foolscap either.
"Oops. Left out a comma. Start again."

“Oops. Left out a comma. Start again.”

 In summary, being a monk sucked.
The monks say that if a master illuminator came to Kells they’d be able to do some real kick-ass illuminating. Brendan is curious, because he thought they were master illuminators but the monks say “Naw, sit down son.” and tell him the story of Saint Colm Cille gaaaaaaaaaaaah oh God not again.
Sorry.
See, I went to Scoil Mobhí, which was built on the site of Saint Mobhí’s monastery in Glasnevin. Mobhí was like the Splinter of Irish saints, he didn’t really do much himself but he trained lots of the really famous ones, most notably Colm Cille (Columba if you’re Scottish) who is like THE biggest deal in Irish Saintdom after Patrick and Brigit. Something that the nuns never missed an opportunity to remind us of. It was like “Did you know Mobhí taught Colm Cille?” Yes. Yes. I know, Sister. It’s kind of damaging to the old school spirit when your school’s patron’s only claim to fame is teaching a much more awesome guy. Every day in class we’d wonder wistfully about what it would be like to go to Scoil Colm Cille.
To be masters of our own destiny, in no one’s shadow. To be.
To matter.
Sigh.
Sorry, lost my train of thought there. Anyway, they tell the story of the Book of Iona (retold in beautiful flash animation) which was begun by Colm Cille and continued by his successor Brother Aidan. Brendan falls asleep and dreams of the island of Iona coming under attack from Vikings and when he’s woken by the monks they tell him that he’d better get those plans to the Abbot before he goes abb-shit. Oh, fun little detail that will be incredibly distracting for you whenever you watch this movie from now on.
Ogham
 See those little lines of hair on Brendan’s fringe? One stroke, then four, then five? That’s actually Ogham, an ancient Irish writing form and it spells “B” “E” “N” which is the shortened name of Tomm Moore’s son, Brendan.
Brendan runs to Cellach’s tower to give him the plans and Cellach’s all “kid, you had one job.” Brendan Gleeson’s vocal performance in this movie is something to behold. This guy was a teacher in Dublin for years and all I can say is I would not have wanted to misbehave in his class. He’s got that kind of voice that’s worse when it’s quiet, you know what I mean? Like when he says “You have disappointed me.” it sounds like he’s about to add “For the last time.” Cellach is a fascinating character, even more so if you know his back story. He was once an illuminator himself, but had to break his vow of non-violence to save the infant Brendan when his brother and sister-in-law were killed by the Vikings. So he’s withdrew into the monastery and built the walls around them higher, and higher and higher.
Looking down from the tower, Brendan sees that a visitor has arrived at Kells. This is Brother Aidan, and look at the first thing we see when he’s introduced.
Celtic cross
That, in case you don’t know, is a Celtic Cross. You may have seen it in graveyards but the significance of the circle within the cross is that it’s the symbol of Lugh, the Celtic god of the sun. Legend has it that Saint Patrick designed the cross. Which, yeah, legend has it that Saint Patrick did a lot of things but it would fit with what we know about his ministry. Patrick was an absolute genius at adapting the native Irish culture into a new form of Christianity. Instead of simply steamrolling over the existing Irish belief system he worked to incorporate as many of its extant traditions and festivals into the Christian faith, in an effort to minimise culture clash. The celtic cross over Aidan symbolises that this is the tradition of Christianity that does not hide behind walls in fear of what is outside, but embraces it, learns from it, and enriches itself from it.
So Aidan is played by Mick Lalley, Ireland’s beloved grand-dad, and he arrives at Kells with his white cat Pangur Bán (medieval Irish poetry reference! All the medieval Irish poetry fans in the house let me hear ya!). The other monks treat Aidan like a rock star and even Cellach welcomes him warmly. Aidan wants to see the scriptorum but Cellach insists on showing him the wall.
"Its gonna be the most beautiful wall you ever saw. And its gonna have CELLACH in big gold letters. Its gonna be YUGE!"

“It’s gonna be the most beautiful wall you ever saw. And it’s gonna have CELLACH in big gold letters. It’s gonna be YUGE!”

 Aidan asks Brendan to feed Pangur. Pangur runs off and Brendan chases after him, overhearing an argument between Cellach and Aidan. Cellach is worried that that the Vikings followed Aidan and that they’ll reach Kells before the wall is finished. Aidan is more concerened with the Book of Iona, but Cellach tells Aidan that the wall is protect all of civilization, and that “through the strength of our walls they will see the strength of our faith.” If the Celtic Cross is Aidan’s symbol, the wall is Cellach’s. For Aidan, faith is a quest for knowledge and understanding, but for Cellach it is a fortification, something to take strength from, but also to retreat behind and with which to close off the outside world. But here’s the thing, neither man is wholly right or wrong. While Aidan might be the more appealing character, you can hardly blame Cellach for building his wall higher and higher. The monsters he’s so afraid of aren’t in his head, there really are Vikings out there and they are murderers and rapists (and some, I assume, are good people).
Later that night, Brendan sneaks into the scriptorium to catch a glimpse of the Book of Iona. Aidan offers to let him look at it but Brendan is nervous, saying that he’s heard that sinners are struck blind if they look at it so maybe he’d better pass. Aida obliquely tells him “There’s nothing in this life but mist” and tells him that it’s his decision. Brendan looks at the book and is entranced by what he sees. Very wisely, the movie doesn’t actually show us, the audience, what’s in the book. Instead, we watch Brendan from a distance as he stares at it and whispers “The work of angels…”
Aidan is very flattered, and asks Brendan if he wants to see the most beautiful page in the whole book. Brendan says yes and Aidan shows him the Chi-Ro page…which is still blank because he hasn’t actually started working on it. Aidan asks Brendan if he wants to help him create it and Brendan of course says yes. Aidan tells him that he needs green oak berries to make a special kind of dye. Brendan says that he can’t leave the Abbey but later that night he has a change of heart and decides to go into the woods alone and get the berries himself. At dawn, Brendan and Pangur head into the forest.

“Now don’t tell me you’re going in there? It’s swarming with wolves!”

It is, in fact, swarming with wolves and Brendan and Pangur soon find themselves surrounded by the blackest, pointiest wolves you ever did see. Suddenly a white wolf approaches and the other wolves vanish in what is, no lie, one of my all time favourite pieces of animation.

The_Secret_of_Kells_Brendon_meets_Aisling
 Also, if you have the US DVD of this movie and have watched it with the subtitles on you’ve probably been confused by this next part. The white wolf approaches Brendan who clasps his hands together and says (according to the subtitles) “Oh no, it’s hard enough.” What he’s actually saying is “Ár nAthair atá ar neamh…” which is “Our Father, who art in heaven…” in Irish. Funny little bit of trivia: “Athair” is the Irish word for “father”, but you put the lower case “n” in front of it when saying “Ár nAthair” because…well…”Ár Athair” is really tricky to say. But the Irish word for “snake” is “Nathair”, meaning that whether you make the “N” or the “A” lower case is the only thing standing between you and some pretty hardcore blasphemy. Anyway, Brendan opens his eyes to find the wolf gone and instead sees a little girl with white hair and the eyebrows of Groucho Marx.
Aisling
Aisling accuses Brendan of trespassing into her forest to steal food for his family, which is kind of like finding that someone has broken into your house and yelling “You! You’re looking for stuff to sell to buy life-saving medicine for your child! Aren’t you!? Aren’t you?! Hmmmmm?!” Brendan says that he has no family (ouch, poor Cellach. I mean, the guy only saved his life and gave up his hopes and dreams to keep him safe) and this touches a chord with Aisling. She agrees to help him find the berries he needs and takes him on the magical tour of wonderment. As he marvels at the beauty of Aisling’s forest, Brendan feels a strange presence calling to him. He wanders off and finds himself in a dark, forbidding clearing surrounded by stone idols. And he is watched by a strange, glowing eye…
I see you

“I…SEE…YOU…”

He sees a dark cave and starts walking towards it but Aisling appears and tells him that they need to get out of there like NOW. She says it is “a place of suffering” and that Crom Cruach dwells within the cave. Brendan then dismisses this in absolutely the most patronising and idiotic way possible, saying that is just a children’s tale.

"Like fairies. Like you! Youre not real, are you? Well there you go."

“Like fairies. Like you! You’re not real, are you? Well there you go.”

So Crom Cruach was supposedly a pre-Christian God worshipped in Cavan. I say “supposedly” because the only existing sources are by Christian writers many years after the fact. Not suspicious in and of itself of course, because pre-Christian Ireland was almost totally illiterate and kept no written records. Supposedly however, he was a very nasty piece of work whose followers practiced infant sacrifice until Saint Patrick came along and smashed Crom’s idol with a big damn hammer because the dude was all about respecting people’s beliefs and all but JESUS. There’s no way to know if the story is true or whether Crom was just a bogey man cooked up by the monks but I tend to think it’s at least partially true. One story has a load of Crom’s followers throwing a party, getting drunk and massacring each other and that’s just so “us”. Anyway, Brendan loudly states that there’s no such thing as Crom Cruach. He says this. While standing in Crom Cruach’s fairy ring.
"FUCKING IDIOT."

“FUCKING IDIOT.”

 

 Sure enough, a hideous shadow emerges from the cave and tries to drag Brendan into it but Aisling saves him by pushing a statue over the entrance and almost dying in the process. Brendan asks her what that was and she’s all “Remember that ancient powerful god that doesn’t it exist? Well, you’re an idiot.”
Brendan goes back to the Abbey and Cellach tells him that he can never leave the Abbey again or its fifty million Hail Maries and an Act of Contrition. Brendan shows Aidan the berries and they make the ink and Aidan starts training Brendan to be an illuminator. Aidan tells Brendan that he’s now to old to finish the Chi-Ro page and that Brendan will have to take up the mantle, but Brendan refuses, saying he’d only ruin it. Cellach calls Brendan away and Aidan tells Pangur that Brendan has the potential to be a fantastic illuminator but that there’s someting holding him back. And Pangur says “Meow” because he’s a cat and Aidan is nuts.
Meanwhile, the Vikings arrive in Ireland and start wrecking heavily stylised carnage in their wake. Refugees start arriving in Kells and Cellach realises that it’s only a matter of time before the Norsemen arrive.
Brendan divides his days between helping Cellach build the wall, helping Aidan with the book and playing with Aisling in the forest. Then one night Aidan discovers that he’s lost the one thing that he needs to complete Brendan’s training, a crystal called “The Eye of Colm Cille.” that basically worked like a magnifying glass and allowed him to draw exquisitely detailed images. Aidan tells Brendan that the eye once had an older name, The Eye of Crom Cruach, and that Colm Cille took it from a powerful demon. So, to re-iterate, Colm Cille ripped out a demon god’s frickin’ eye and used it to create holy manuscripts.
Irish saints. Metal as FUCK.

Irish saints. Metal as FUCK.

Brendan decides to go into the forest and get another eye from Crom Cruach…
No. No.
Sweetie, tell him…
"Let him go. We cant save this one."

“Let him go. We can’t save this one.”

But he’s stopped by Cellach who quite rightly locks him in the basement until he sees sense. Pangur runs into the forest to find Aisling.

"Ya got balls, cat. I like that."

“Ya got balls, cat. I like that.”

Aisling finds Brendan and asks him how she can get him out. He tells her that the key is at the top of Cellach’s tower and she takes Pangur and sits on a window. And then, sweet mercy, this happens.

Okay um…onions. Shut up.

Jesus. Give me a second.

Okay. So. A couple of points. What Aisling is singing is not actually the poem “Pangur Bán” but an original composition for the movie. The original poem is about a monk battling writer’s block while watching his cat, Pangue Bán (“he hunts mice while I hunt words”). What Aisling is singing is “Níl sa saol seo ach ceo/Is ní bheidh muid beo/Ach seal beag gearr” (I am probably screwing up the spelling something awful, I’ve always been more fluent speaking than writing). Anyway, it means “There is nothing in this life but mist/And we will only live/For a little while.”

Although honestly, the music is so evocative and Christen Mooney’s singing voice is so gorgeous she could be reciting the different tenses of the verb “to be” and it would probably move me to tears. Besides, it’s Irish. Anything you sing in it sounds epic. Listen to this:

They may sound like they’re singing about the last desperate alliance between men and elves. They’re singing about seaweed.

Anyway, Aisling transforms Pangur into a spirit cat and he takes the key from Cellach’s room.

"Briiiiight eyes..."

“Briiiiight eyes…”

Brendan is freed and goes into the forest to get Crom Cruach’s eye because this kid just does not learn. Aisling reluctantly agrees to help him and lifts the huge fifty ton stone statue over her head like it’s paper and my people supposedly defeated her people and drove them under ground and I suppose my question is HOW? HOW DID WE DO THAT? Anyway, Crom’s shadowy tendrils start leaching energy away from Aisling and she makes this face.

Ah. Theres that new-timey Cartoon Saloon terror.

Ah. There’s that new-timey Cartoon Saloon terror.

 She tells him to turn the darkness into light and Brendan is sucked into the other world where he finally sees the true form of Crom Cruach.

Ár Nathair.

Ár Nathair.

 Brendan battles the serpent and manages to defeat him with a stick of chalk, which allows him to create solid walls that trap Crom. So here, Brendan, a monk, is using a writing implement to defeat a pagan god, who, interestingly enough, takes the form of a giant snake. Snakes of course were supposedly driven from Ireland by Saint Patrick and so act as a symbol of the older pre-Christian belief symbols that succumbed to the written word of the Christian faith. So by defeating Crom with chalk, Brendan is fuck it you know where I’m going with this. Now blinded, Crom starts devouring his own tail (the Book of Kells is full of images of snakes eating themselves as a symbol of eternity).  So Brendan just yanks Crom’s eye right out of his socket (Irish monks. Metal as fuck) and returns to the real world.
He wakes up in the tomb where a single shaft of sunlight falls on him. This is a visual reference to Newgrange, an ancient Irish tomb that predates the pyramids that’s designed so that every year on the winter solstice (and only on the winter solstice) sunlight illuminates the inner chamber.
Brendan returns to Kells and shows Aidan the eye that he ripped from the socket of a giant snake god and Aidan’s all “Damn son” and they start work on the book. The other monks catch wind of this and leave work on the wall to admire Brendan’s handiwork. The Abbot arrives and furiously tells them that they have one day before the Vikings attack Kells and locks Aidan and Brendan in the scriptorium. The Vikings attack and Cellach takes an arrow to the shoulder.
"Loser Vikings shot me in the shoulder! Bad!"

“Loser Vikings shot me in the shoulder! Bad!”

So. Our heroes find away to turn the tide of battle and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat?
 No. This is an Irish story. They lose, and almost everyone dies. The Vikings overrun the abbey, burn it to the ground and slaughter everyone they find. Only Aidan, Brendan and Pangur are able to escape with the book. They get captured by the Vikings who take the book from them but are only interested in the bejewelled bookcase, and tear out the illuminated vellum pages. Just as the Vikings are about to slaughter Brendan and Aidan, a pack of wolves emerge from the forest nom nom nom nom and then vanish back home to pick the Viking out of their teeth. Aidan and Brendan pick up the tossed pages. One blows away and as Brendan runs to catch it he meets someone who has come to say goodbye.
Wolf
Back at Kells, Tang is still alive because he hid in the tower and the Vikings couldn’t find no Tang round here. Tang comes across the wounded but still living Abbot and nurses him back to health.
Years pass.
Now a grown man, Brendan returns to the forest and sees the white wolf again. The wolf leads him back to Kells where Brendan is shocked to find Cellach alive and living in the tower. Cellach has been consumed with grief and guilt over what happened to Brendan.  Brendan and his uncle are reunited and Cellach tells him how bitterly he regrets preventing Aidan from finishing the book. Brendan says with a smile that “Aidan never did pay you much mind” and shows Cellach the completed book that he and Aidan worked through the years to finish. “The Book of Iona?” Cellach asks. “The Book of Kells”, Brendan replies.
And I looked at a fully animated depiction of the Chi Ro page and asked myself how it was even possible.

And I looked at a fully animated depiction of the Chi Ro page and asked myself how it was even possible.

***

The Book of Kells is the greatest piece of art ever produced in Ireland. In the Secret of Kells, it has a depiction worthy of that legacy. An incredible, unbelievably beautiful movie.

 

Scoring
Animation: 20/20
Beautiful, deceptively simple, magnificently detailed, utterly unique.
Main Characters: 17/20
Brendan and Aisling make for a very appealing double act.
Villain: 15/20
Crom and the Vikings are really characters so much as dark, animalistic, primal forces. Nuanced? No. But menacing as all get out.
Supporting Characters: 16/20
This is a world overflowing with uniquely designed, visually striking (sometimes unfortunately so) characters.
Music: 18/20
Bruno Coulais and Irish band Kíla give a beautiful, moody score dripping in atmosphere.
FINAL SCORE: 86%
NEXT UPDATE: 17 March 2016
NEXT TIME: What do they got, a lot of sand? We got a hot crustacean band! Each little clam here, know how to jam here, under the sea.
Neil Sharpson aka the Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger based in Dublin. The blog updates with a new review every second Thursday. Original artwork for this blog was commissioned from the oh-so talented Julie Android, whose artwork is now available for purchase on T-Shirts, mugs, hoodies and more at the Unshaved Mouse online store. Check it out!
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62 comments

  1. I watched The Secret of Kells a few years ago and remember really enjoying it, though I think not having the full Irish context definitely hurt my viewing experience a bit. It really feels like a movie about Ireland made explicitly for the Irish, so as a lousy American (though an American who ALSO has Irish and Greek roots) I missed out on a lot of the subtleties of the film. Still great though.

    Now Song of the Sea on the other hand, oh boy. I just watched it last night and it is INCREDIBLE. Super excited for that review

  2. ‘They’re singing about seaweed’ – you’ve killed me. I’m typing this by poultergeisting a spoon on the keyboard.

    My brother and I have been desperate to see this movie and Song of the Sea for ages. Just the promos alone struck us both dumb with their magnificence. I would love to see more fantasy works like this: works that have an aesthetic, a sound, a tone that fully evokes the cultures they draw on.

    This feels crazy to say this, because I haven’t even seen the film, but never have two songs and a dozen pictures (drawings!) made me want to visit a place so badly. Some day I’ll have to go north and explore my roots…

    Speaking of roots, it’s probably time I went out and continued with weeding the garden. And by ‘weeding the garden’, I mean clearing seven acres of invasive trees as big as myself which are covered in razor grass while being bitten through my jeans by giant flies… but it will look so good when I’m done.

    1. Wait a minute…

      WAIT A MINUTE!

      Saint Patrick banished all of those snakes to Australia, didn’t he? DIDN’T HE?!

      ‘Chased into the sea,’ my arse! You did this to us! Forget the family history – I’m coming straight over there for revenge!

      1. Aw, I can’t stay mad at you.

        Yeah, the world has a right to be pissed off at the British for a lot of reasons.
        But the first people from my family who arrived here, strangely enough, were among the few who heard about the bizarre fauna and horrifying weather and decided (very much in the spirit of my family), ‘Sounds fantastic, let’s all move there immediately.’

  3. Mouse, you are too modest. Even without the clay pipe or turf cottage, you imparted some very Gaelic wisdom that, for me at least, would’ve gone unknown or unnoticed — the Ogham in Brendan’s hairline, the meaningfulness of borders, Colm Cille, how Lugh’s sign is incorporated into the Celtic cross, and every single word of Gaelic uttered.

    *raises a glass of Guiness in tribute*

  4. Yessss! One of my favourite films, I was so looking forward to this! And you did a wonderful job reviewing it, no cause for worry at all! You brought so many interesting facts and tidbits about Irish history and culture, it was a blast reading all of it. Being a Dutch dullard myself, I’m as always green with envy over your rich and distinctive (and metal as FUCK) culture.

  5. Don’t worry, Mouse, you more than delivered! This is such a gorgeous movie! And I love that I now have all this background info that I didn’t know before, it gives the story a lot more depth. I’m gonna have to watch it again some time soon!

    As for Song of the Sea, that one wins out over Secret of Kells for me by a slim margin, it ‘s just a bit more accessible for me because of its modern setting and the fact that I actually know a bit about Selkies just cuz I love magical creatures, monsters, changelings, and whatnot. Also there are SO MANY CUTE THINGS!

  6. This is one of those movies that I wouldn’t know why I couldn’t get into it, but yeah, I didnt, sorry.

    But at least I like Song of the Sea. Which I almost typed as Song of the South, somehow.

  7. And lo, OverMaster saw there was a new review. For a movie he had never watched. And so his heart was torn, would he want to read the Unshaved Mouse’s newest quirky review RIGHT NOW, or would he wait until he had watched the movie himself as to avoid spoilers?

    Great was the battle within his heart, but finally he decided to just skip over the review and just look at the pictures and scores for the time being. And so he is now, presently with a great new question in his heart…

    … did this movie share any character designers with Kim Possible, or is it a wrong impression from stills that would disappear watching the actual film in motion…?

    1. It’s funny, because when I first saw clips from it I thought Genndy Tartaokovsky was involved because the designs seemed similar to the work you’d see in Samurai Jack or The Powerpuff Girls. Of course, he had nothing to do with this movie but it’s more than worth a look all the same.

  8. I spent three bloody months trawling the interwebs to find a symbol for Lugh for a self-directed pproject I am working on. Three bloody months of being presented with a half-clad dude with flowing hair and three wheat stalks! I scroll down and you have casually laid out the symbology that has eluded me for three freaking months (three! months!) while I dug through new agey websites!
    Great review, btw, I am now totally prepared to go back and re-watch that movie.

    1. Well that’s the folklore explanation for the Celtic Cross. The sun cross (a circle with a cross within) shows up all over prehistoric Europe and could well have been a symbol for Lugh.

      1. No no, it’s great, and it makes sense, it was just hilariously funny to me in that context. And when I’m stumped during my next round of digging in libraries and interwebs, I’ll just wait and you’ll have laid the last piece before me. It’s brilliant.

  9. Okay, I’ll now saying something which will most likely gets me banned but…I think Secret of Kells is okay at best. 20/20 for the animation? Nope! 20/20 for the design, but said design can’t quite hide how limited the actual animation is. Personally I don’t like the characters either. Brannon is a little bit too much the wide-eyed innocent to speak to me, and Aisling…she is simply mysterious. And the story was a little bit long-winded for my taste. Interesting enough to merit a nomination, but not good enough to actually merit a win imho.

    May I stay if I mention that I adore Song of the Sea, because it pretty much corrected all the gripes I had with Secret of Kells?

    1. This is an interesting argument. I frankly think the opposite. I always thought that Song of the Sea brought in problems of its own. Which were more distracting than Secret of Kells.
      1) Did the animation style suit the 21st century? The iPod was jarring.
      2) was Aisling just mysterious? Sure. She’s a fairy. But she was a engaging often badass yet sensitive character. The selkies… well what did we learn about them?
      3) the grandma in SotS was a missed opportunity. She could have been way more funny and also youth’s connection to the magic world. I never felt that a character In SoK was wasted.
      4) Brendan Gleeson was underwhelming.
      5) they kept throwing way too many characters.
      6) …And I don’t get it. What was going on all the time? If you want to tell a story about selkies, then wonderful. But what then? SoK has a message we can take (Irish history is metal as fuck)
      And I didn’t get any vibe from SotS.
      7) why wasn’t the father the main character? The story is traditional selkie tale. And as the son keeps trying to find out what his mum was the entire film and the audience KNOWS it from the beginning.

      I do apologize if I seem to be looking at only on the surface. It’s just that the Secret of Kells moved me to tears and Song of the Sea… made me just wait for an hour an half. Hopefully Mr Mouse’s review would shed light to the underlying metaphor so I can get what it was all about…

      1. It’s for me the other way around. As someone not connected to Irish Culture, Secret of Kells left me puzzled. I guess partly because I didn’t understand why this book was so important in the first place. Knowing that it is such an important artwork and part of Irish history makes me understand the movie a little bit better in hindsight, but even with this knowledge it doesn’t really move me on an emotional level. While with Song of the Sea, the parallels drawn between the old stories and our modern live, showing that folklore is inherently relevant…it just works for me, on every level. I was in tears by the end of Song of the Sea, while watching Secret of Kells was kind of a chore.

  10. Great review! I personally don’t remember liking this film all that much because I found it boring, but I think it deserves a rewatch from me.

    It’s nice that you could bring your Irish insight into this film. So, two Irish-related questions: 1) Is the word “fecking” considered an incredibly mild curse word as opposed to the f-word that it appears to sound like?

    And 2) The question we all want to know: While I know that leprechauns, fairies, banshees, and the like are not real (or at least I assume so because society says so), have you personally experienced anything Irish-ly creepy or paranormal in Ireland before?

    1. Fecking is very mild. It’s a euphemism for “fuck” but not always. For example, it’s never used to refer to sex. Supernatural stuff? Not personally. I can tell you though, if you ever spend a night alone in a cottage in the Irish countryside, it starts to feel a lot more plausible.

  11. Usually I don’t care for these “miscellaneous” reviews in comparison to the big-name ones, but I’ll make an exception for this one. It’s abundantly clear that you’re passionate about both the movie itself and the subject matter, and it’s contagious. I’ll go pir… er, rent it right now.

    (In contrast, I barely remember you reviewing that Asterix movie, or that one about the cows.)

  12. Wonderful review as always, Mouse! You brought a lot of insight that even I missed the first…oh heck, the many countless times I’ve watched this movie. The imagery with the Celtic Cross? The Ogham on Brendan’s head? Went completely over my head. It’s wonderful to see something new in a film you love.

    Personally, I prefer this over Song of the Sea, but only by a margin. Both are beautiful films. I can’t wait to see your take on that as well.

  13. Yes, knowledge was so fragile back then. Valuable, too, and they knew it. So valuable that when Colm Cille and St. Finnian disagreed over which of them owned a copy Colm Cille had made of one of Finnian’s books (the only psalter in Ireland), the conflict involved actual pitched battles. The resolution of that incident forms the basis of all modern copyright law. (The more you know…)

    Back on topic… For me, Secret of Kells edges out Song of the Sea because of the perfect match of subject matter and artistic style.

  14. So I saw Zootopia last night. It’s excellent. Funny, exciting, and engaging characters. Also (and I swear to god this is true) it’s an allegory for racism.

  15. This movie is…so…pretty…
    I wanna fondle it. I wanna pet it.

    I guess I’ll have to comform with watching it 😦
    Btw Neil will you ever talk about the Disney live action reboots? Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon…?

      1. Sigh. I was hoping that if they do a sequel it would have Anne Hathaway as Mary Poppins. She fit the role perfectly in the skit she did at SNL.
        But Emily Blunt is not a bad choice… probably they’ll be focusing on her “stern” persona! Besides her singing was damn good in Into the Woods. I have hope.
        🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏

  16. This is and always be among the most beautiful animated movies. Both visually and as a film.
    Wow you do know a lot of background info in this film. I’ve never even caught them before. I’m especially going to keep an eye out for the ray of light in the cave next time I see it.
    Um… I know this probably has no basis in fact but to me Gaelic sounds like high speed Divelhi to me… that’s Maldivian.
    This is one of my favourite examples to argue that the concept of musicals isn’t awful: Aisling’s song. Yes this is no musical but the song fits in perfectly.
    I’ve a minor quibble to ask from Mr Mouse; you said Sairose Ronan was in this in your top ten favourite non- Disney animated movies list… is she?

  17. Wonderful review of a wonderful film. Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey’s efforts in the last few years have really wowed me – their Anam an Amhráin dvd is well worth a look as well, with many great pieces but one for me which stands above the others – a short tale depicting Gráinne Mhaol’s life while Paul Brady does a hearty rendition of Oró Sé Do Bheatha Abhaile.

    Kells is a stunning film, the animation and music flow beautifully together and now that it and Song of the Sea have released, my attention is very much turned to Cartoon Saloon and whatever they do in the future – I believe they’re currently working with Angelina Jolie, though I can’t remember what on. I agree in that, for me, Kells just about pips it, but both films are fantastic in their own way and don’t really invite much in the way of comparison.

    I have to speak about Bruno Coulais’ amazing work in scoring the film – I loved it so much that I went out and bought two other works of his, Les Choristes and Microcosmos. His work is really unique and I love the sound he brings to the films.

    Great review Mouse, keep up the good work! I had no idea Brendan’s fringe was Ogham, nice little detail there. I remember being curious about the statues circling Cromm Cruach’s place, as I knew I had seen them before but couldn’t place them, so for anyone who is wondering, they are the Boa Island figures from Fermanagh, one of which you can see here –

    I love how they took an easily identifiable (to us) part of our history and made it part of the film – it’s full of great stuff like that.

  18. When I first stumbled onto Aisling’s song on YouTube, it was so enchanting (still is) that I was all, “I MUST SEE THIS MOVIE!” 😛 I enjoyed it for the most part, and the bits with both Brendan and Aisiling were easily my favorite. Still, I found it ridiculous that the man building the wall apparently didn’t remember that walls need defenders, and the ending felt so long, so drawn out, and a bit spooky when Aisling the wolf-girl-ghost made her final appearance. It felt very anticlimactic after the fight with Crom, ya know? Still, I enjoyed the movie overall… and I LOVE the bits with Aisling! 🙂

      1. True, but there were non-monks in Kells, it seemed, who should not have had any such restrictions. A wall without defenders is useless, as evidenced by how the Vikings swarmed over and past it practically without breaking stride, and the ensuing death and destruction.

  19. Great review!

    Aisling creepy face when she says “Change darkness… into light” always scares the crap out of me. And the scene of the massacre when the Vikings manage to enter the church, with all the villagers cowering inside and the medieval choir singing… woof I get chills everytime. Sad chills 😦

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