December 29, 2010 -- One of the most famous copies of the New Testament of the Bible is The Book of Kells, an illuminated (illustrated and decorated with artwork) manuscript produced by Celtic monks around 800 A.D. on the Scottish Island of Iona and at a monastery at Kells, County Meath, Ireland, where the monks fled after a Viking raid in 806. The book is known for its lavish calligraphy and its complex, detailed illustrations and decorations. This interesting animated feature film tells a tall tale about the making of the Book of Kells which is based on pagan Celtic myths, while never mentioning what the book itself is all about.
In this story, Brendan, a young boy living in the monastery at Kells, becomes interested in the book when it arrives with Brother Aidan, who has just arrived from Iona with the renowned book, after he escaped with it from the Viking raid. He is astonished with the intricate artwork in the book. Aidan, the most famous illuminator of his day, encourages Brendan to learn the art of illumination. Brendan's uncle, the abbot of Kells, feels this is a waste of time for the boy. He is more interested in completing the walls around the monastery before the Vikings come. Seeking oak gall nuts used to make green ink for Aidan, Brendan goes into the forest, even though he is forbidden to do so by his uncle. There, he meets a spirit of the forest, Aisling, who helps him find the gall nuts and invites him to come back into the forest. While in the forest, Brendan also finds a cave where the evil spirit of Crom Cruach, a Celtic deity, lives.
As Brendan develops his artistry further, Aidan tells him that his eyes have become weak and his hands unsteady. He needs Brendan's help to finish the book. For Brendan, the book has become an obsession. Aidan tells him he needs a special crystal, called the Eye of Collum-Cille to finish the book. Looking through the faceted crystal will help him complete the unique artwork in the book. Aidan had such a crystal, but it was lost in the Viking raid on Iona. Brendan, with Aisling's help, goes into the cave of Crom Cruach to retrieve another crystal. There, he does artistic battle with a fearsome snake-like creature. Adventures follow and many years later, the story is completed.
The artwork in the film is unique, the product of some 200 artists in five countries. There is an international spice to the film. It is not entirely Irish. According to the extras on the DVD the monastery at Kells reflects the diversity of people in Ireland at the time. There is a Celtic flavor to the art and music in the film. One of the extras on the DVD (also available in blu-ray) is an informative documentary about how the film was made, including the evolution of the artwork. There is also an early trailer for the film with older concept art not used in the finished film. The story is bittersweet, laced with a lot of tragedy. It also fails to reveal anything about the Book of Kells itself, except for the drawings in it. That misses the whole point of the book. There is also little mention made of the very important role the monks of Ireland had in preserving a vast amount of Greek, Roman and European history and culture during the Dark Ages.
This is certainly a unique film visually, but the story and characters are a bit weak and the pacing is a bit slow. I did not find it worthy of the lavish praise it has gotten from many critics. This is not something that will ever find its way into my Irish film collection for Saint Patrick's Day viewing with the likes of Ondine, The Secret of Roan Inish and The Quiet Man. I did like the cat, Pangur Ban, though. It turns out that Pangur Ban is the one and only character in the film which actually existed in history. This film rates a C+.
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