Movie Review

The Secret of Kells

The Secret of Kells Movie Poster

US Release Date: 12-04-2009

Directed by: Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey


  • Brendan Gleeson
  • Abbot Cellach (voice)
  • Liam Hourican
  • Brother Tang / Leonardo (voice)
  • Mick Lally
  • Aidan (voice)
  • Michael McGrath
  • Adult Brendan (voice)
  • Evan McGuire
  • Brendan (voice)
  • Christen Mooney
  • Aisling (voice)
  • Paul Tylack
  • Brother Assoua (voice)
  • Paul Young
  • Brother Square (voice)
Average Stars:
Reviewed on: February 20th, 2010
The hand-drawn animation is at times quite beautiful and yet seems quite crude at other times.

The hand-drawn animation is at times quite beautiful and yet seems quite crude at other times.

The Secret of Kells' nomination for Best Animated Feature was one of the few surprise nominations for this year's Oscars. I had never even heard of this Irish cartoon before it was nominated and it had received only the bare minimum release in the USA so I at least was surprised by its nomination. Now having seen it I have to confess that I'm still surprised by its nomination.

The story is set in the Abbey of Kells in Ireland during the 9th century. Twelve year old Brendan is studying to become a monk with his uncle the Abbot. His uncle is building a wall around Abbey in anticipation of a Viking invasion. Brendan comes under the tutelage of Brother Aidan, a master illuminator. Brendan begins work on the Book of Kells with Aidan's guidance. He also experiences some fantastical adventures in the woods surrounding the Abbey. There in the woods he befriends a fairy and does battle with an evil spirit.

It's an interesting enough story, but even at 75 minutes it's stretched fairly thin. There's a bit of filler scattered throughout its short running time. It could easily have been condensed to 30 minutes without losing much. In fact, if it had been and been nominated for Best Animated Short, I'd have understood the nomination more.

The animation is highly stylized and hand drawn (a dying art these days). It actually took me a little while to get used to its style, which is nothing close to realistic. Some of it works, like the way the Vikings and the wolves are drawn dark and vague and yet remain menacing looking. Other times though it just comes across as crude and simple as when Brendan is doing battle with the evil spirit.

Another interesting thing about the film is that the Book of Kells is the Bible (there really is an Abbey of Kells and there really is a Book of Kells by the way) and obviously these are all Monks, but the book is never explained to be the Bible and the film shows fairies and spirits that are in contrast to typical Christian belief. My question then is why make the cartoon with such Catholic characters, involving historical Catholic places and things and then never mention God or Catholicism?

It's nice to see an independent animated film get nominated for an Oscar and it's nice to see someone besides Disney and Pixar get nominated (although Pixar is pretty much a lock to win with Up), but at the same time, I can't honestly say this movie deserved its nomination.

Reviewed on: November 19th, 2011
Brendan and Aidan

Brendan and Aidan

Scott seemed very distracted by the animation style, but I enjoyed it. Thanks to my sons, I was introduced to a cartoon years ago called "Samurai Jack." One of the directors of The Secret of Kells, Tomm Moore, has acknowledged that the main stylistic influence for this film was Genndy Tartakovsky's "Samurai Jack."

The other was the actual Book of Kells. Some of the looks of the trees were taken from the illustrations from The Book of Kells, as was the snake like evil spirit. One of the last images on screen is from an actual page of the book. It seems to have a large detailed "P" on it. Having seen so much computer animation and some anime, I found this an interesting change of art.

The Secret of Kells is about getting beyond your fears. Brendan is scared to go into the woods. His uncle has frightened him of the forest by keeping him behind the walls, as he is scared of the Vikings. Even the wood fairy, Ainsling, is scared of the evil spirit. The point of the story is that the introduction of Christianity is intended to alleviate fear. As Aisling says, "I have seen the book. The book that turned darkness into light."

Something Scott did not mention was the humor. It opens with a goose chase that ends with a humorous twist. My favorite line is when Brendan says, "You can't find out everything from books, you know." To which Aidan responds, "I think I read that once." Was I the only one who thought Aidan looked like Willie Nelson?

The Secret of Kells sparked my curiosity to look up more information on the actual book. It is considered one of Ireland's greatest artifacts. The movie could have been improved here and there with a bit more wit and tighter editing, but it did educate me on something I had never heard of before. I always love a movie that can do that.

Reviewed on: March 9th, 2015
Brendan and Pangur Bán in The Secret of Kells.

Brendan and Pangur Bán in The Secret of Kells.

I had seen Tomm Moore's 2014 animated feature Song of the Sea before watching The Secret of Kells. Both movies feature old fashioned, hand-drawn animation with stories involving Irish folklore and mythology. Both movies were also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Although I enjoyed Song of the Sea more, I found quite a bit to like about this movie as well.

Like Eric, I was inspired to read up a bit on the real Book of Kells. Although the exact date of its creation is unknown it is believed to have been written during the early Eighth Century, which would make it about 1,300 years old. Since the Seventeenth Century it has been housed at the library of Trinity College in Dublin. The white cat in the movie was named for an Eighth Century poem written by a monk to his pet cat. Aiden recites a portion of it during the credits. Eric, I too noticed the resemblance between Aiden and Willie Nelson. It's almost as if they asked him to pose for the character.

The Secret of Kells is imaginative and whimsical, as all cartoons should be. It's deceptively simple in style but it manages to evoke a real sense of danger as well as convey genuine emotion. Foreign animation offers a refreshing change of pace compared to the big budget CGI spectacles that American children regularly gorge themselves on these days. The look of this movie stirs the imagination by leaving things out and letting the audience fill in the blanks. CGI animation, on the other hand, drowns the imagination by showing everything down to the tiniest detail; washing over the viewer's senses and rendering the movie watching experience even more passive than it already is.

The Secret of Kells tells a fascinating story and does so in a creative fashion. My one small complaint is the overly somber tone (Song of the Sea had more laughs in it). Eric pointed out a few moments of levity here but for the most part the story remains quite serious. Still, The Secret of Kells is head and shoulders above the majority of today's American animated features. It's a children's movie that deals with adult themes without dumbing them down.

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