From the creators of the CBBC animated series Skunk Fu! comes this Medieval fantasy, recently nominated for an Academy award. Set in 9th century Ireland, the story concerns twelve year old Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), a novice monk who lives at the abbey in Kells where illustrators gathered from around the world toil on sacred texts, intent on keeping hope and learning alive in the face of a Viking invasion. However, Brendan’s uncle, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) is more concerned with fortifying the wall that protects their abbey from the Vikings - envisioned here as shadowy behemoths with horns.
Brendan is fascinated by the art of illumination, but his stern uncle keeps such dreams in check and forbids him from setting foot in the outside world. One day he meets Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), a legendary illuminator seeking sanctuary at the abbey, who awakens him to the beauty of art and stimulates his imagination. Finally, Brendan decides to break free and pursue his dream of completing the treasured Book of Kells. On his journey through the forest, Brendan encounters a little girl called Aisling (Christine Mooney), who is really a magical fairy hundreds of years old, who helps him overcome his greatest fears.
The real Book of Kells is thought to date back to the 10th century and contains the four Gospels of the New Testament. It is one of the great treasures of Christian art, its pages adorned with pictures of saints, animals, mythical beasts and ornate decorations of extraordinary detail and colour. Drawing upon some of the more outlandish facets of Christian myth and legend, the film boasts a beguiling art style, midway between a children's book, Saturday morning cartoon fare and authentic Medieval art. Co-directors Tomm Moore and Nora Tworney create a world of living illuminations by melding the humour and energy of Looney Tunes with the epic sweep and magic of The Lord of the Rings and letting their animators' imagination run riot during a jaw-dropping jaunt across Aisling’s sylvan wonderland. The filmmakers deserve some praise for placing something as ambitious as the quest for enlightment through art at the centre of a children's movie but all the same, as scripted by Fabrice Ziolkowski from an original story by Moore, the plot may prove too esoteric for younger viewers.
Though never less than engaging and appealing to look at, the film does take a while to settle on one definitive narrative arc and along the way, casts aside its more accessible fantasy and romantic threads. One major character makes an abrupt exit without any satisfying explanation and several surprisingly downbeat turns eliminate most of the likeable supporting cast. It is very much an artist’s tale: Brendan escapes his cloistered monastic life in pursuit of his artistic muse and overcomes dangers along the way. Aside from a trip into a fascinating parallel world where he grapples with a monstrous worm, for the most part the film struggles to weigh these personal victories against the tragedies that befall his wider world. Given our principal characters are pacifist monks and not dauntless warriors, the standard battle between good and evil that concludes most fantasy adventures might feel out of place. So instead things end on a moral victory, stressing the significance of the book of Kells that an older Brendan (Michael McGrath) finally returns to his abbey ten years later. However, this arrives not as a brilliant burst of enlightenment but a protracted, slow-burning finish that leaves too many loose threads dangling. What this lacks is an element strong enough to make us care about the book beyond its historical significance and match the emotion we had invested in the characters so appealingly voiced by youngsters Evan McGuire and Christine Mooney.