Maybe it comes down to a case of pre-show hype again but I left The Secret of Kells, the debut of animator Tomm Moore, not overly impressed. The animation feels lush and textured, but the story it presents is utterly rote stuff, even if the formula is followed perfectly.
Brendan, a young Irish monk in training, follows his uncle, the Abbot of his church and apparently leader of a kind of city state. Young Brendan clashes with him in his gentle way, seeking adventure where his uncle obsesses with the safety of his community, as evidenced by his fixation with building a wall to keep out invading Norsemen. Brendan soon develops an opposing obsession with a book, or the Book, being completed by aging monk Illuminator, Brother Aiden. His uncle, having no time for such foolishness (of course) bans Brendan from participating in the book’s completion despite his aptitude for art. His search for oak berries, to make ink, leads him into the dread forest beyond the walls of the city, where Brendan leaves safety and comfort behind for the first time.
Here he finds the second part of his story, a sort of wood sprite named Aisling. She becomes Brendan’s playmate and protector in his time in the forest, eventually aiding him in discovering a key to finishing the Book (always beheld in those sort of reverent tones, despite showing little in the way of spiritual value). These scenes are the movie’s strength. When Aisling transforms and flows across screen the film comes suddenly to life, whereas the drudgery of the monks lives makes for torpid viewing. The Abbot, though never cruel, is serious to a fault and demands the same of those he deals with in the care of his keep. Aisling provides Brendan a childhood release of play that he desperately requires, and Aiden spurs him on in creating art for the Book. His art flows much the same as Aisling’s form does, always rolling and expanding to become something new.
The cartooning reminds me much of the sort of European animated shorts that used to fill out Nickelodeon’s morning shows, playing alongside such as the Paddington Bear shorts, when I was a child. There’s a similar hand drawn quality to them, as though completed with colored pencils. Much of the animation in Kells is quite gorgeous. Again, it’s the story I find lacking. Everything just fell into its designated place. You could take dozens of similar stories, erase the names and drop in the ones Kells and never know the difference in the description. So, while I appreciate the quality of the art, I’d like to see Moore attach it to something a little deeper next time and flesh out the characters a little more, make them less stock than “curious child” and “disapproving parental stand-in.” 3 ½ stars