The Secret of Kells

Religion and faith seem to find their ways into films in explicit and implicit forms. Whether you are strictly tied to a religious group or simply follow your own guidelines, you have probably seen a movie at some point that was weighed down by intense religious overtones. The Secret of Kells has these religious overtones, but is deftly able to avoid any overkill and provides the audience with a magical little tale in the true spirit of Ireland.


Brendan is a young boy living in the Abbey of Kells during a stressful time when every town is fearful of devastating Viking attacks. One legend Brendan had heard about was a special book written by the most talented Illuminator (monk scribe), Aidan, on the Isle of Iona that would release a light that could overtake all darkness. When Aidan arrives in Kells, Brendan begins to learn the ways of illustrating and writing the book while exploring the long-forbidden forest. Along the way he is helped by Aidan’s cat, Pangur Ban, and a pagan forest spirit, Aisling (pronounced Ashley).

The Book of Kells is an Irish manuscript containing the Four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, so you can imagine how religiously motivated the story could get. There are also the pagan beliefs represented by Aisling and Crom Cruach to contrast – and in many ways compliment – the Christian beliefs. Yet, Kells finds a way to keep the religious aspects of the film subdued, relatively, and focuses more on the magical aspects of the legendary tale.

The animation is an excellent blend of minimalist portrayals and intricate details. While the people and some of the backgrounds are given shapely figures, the illustrations in the book and anything regarding Celtic lore are given the most intricate details and attention. This results in a luminous contrast between the real and the mystical.

As with most tales, Kells utilizes the usual light to fight the darkness, or simply put: good vs. evil. The evil characters, the Vikings and Crom Cruach, are mostly faceless creatures only really representing a general evil and nothing in particular. The Abbott Cellach is initially rendered as an evil character due to his constant rejections of Brendan’s desires to unleash his artistic talents, but in the end you can’t really blame him for attempting to fight off the Vikings with a giant wall.

Kells does a great job staying within its element. At just under seventy-five minutes, the film focuses on the important aspects and avoids filler scenes. The only times the film stretches beyond its boundaries are when the evil characters are given screen time. The animation for these scenes gets surprisingly frightening and completely brings you out of the dream-like stupor caused by the whimsical Aisling or pure Brendan. Having never personally heard the tale, I found the ending to be somewhat lacking in substance, but it does not take away from the rest of the film. The cynical, non-religious types will finish the movie with a sense of dissatisfaction and wonder about what comes next considering the circumstances of the characters, and Kells.

The Secret of Kells is a fun movie with solid animation and an intriguing story. I don’t anticipate it reaching the top of many favorites lists, but you will not have a hard time enjoying it.

  1. Thanks for this review. Actually, I find it’s hitting many peoples’ favorites lists: mine, and those of some who have commented on my recent review. It’s absolutely lovely and intriguing, and in some ways surpassed my expectations.

    The ending wasn’t what I expected, and at first I wasn’t sure whether or not I was disappointed. It didn’t give us the usual slam-bang, easy happy ending we expect from animated fairy tales. But after giving it thought, I think it is more mature and interesting the way they did it. Healing and reconciliation takes time, sometimes many years, and it was heartwarming to see Brendan and Cellach finally together again, and to learn that Brendan held no grudges, and to witness Cellach finally seeing the beauty of the Book. For a fairy tale, this had some surprisingly realistic human characters.

    I’m also very interested in the movie’s themes relating to religion and myth. Personally I would have liked the movie to at least acknowledge that the monks are Christian and that the book is the Bible. It’s very odd, and a little offensive if I think of it too much, that they seem almost scared to use those words, when these are, after all, monks! But the subtext, as you said, is there, and I love the gentle, nuanced touch the movie has on all its themes. Cellach, though he’s an Abbott, neglects his duties as the spiritual mentor of the abbey until it’s too late, but (as you said) you can’t really blame him for trying to take measures against the Vikings; Aisling, though a mystical fairy, ends up appreciating the Book without losing her identity; Aidan, though lovable and wise, nonetheless makes the wrong decision in encouraging Brendan’s disobedience and aggravating the Abbott rather than respecting him. Even the main theme of creativity and the importance of art to civilization…sure, it’s obvious, but it’s also important and beautifully illustrated (pun not really intended, but not avoided either!). This movie really gives you a lot to think about!

    Anyway, I hope my observations are helpful in thinking about this movie. I really loved it, and I just want to share what I love about it.

    • Thanks for reading! I agree the ending was quite mature, but I think that may have been more as a result of accuracy to the actual legend/myth than adherence to fairy tale happy endings. With regards to the explicit mention of Christian faith, I tend to think they were trying to make the story all-inclusive and not alienate, per se, those who are not Christian.

      In any case, your observations are very helpful in thinking about this film! A surprisingly insightful comment opposed to the norm!

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