Starting their tradition of losing Oscars to Pixar, Cartoon Saloon’s first feature concerns the creation of the Book of Kells – an Irish national treasure up there with Graham Linehan Bono Enya.
Set in a Columban monastery (the BBC ALBA version on iPlayer is in Gaelic with English subs), The Secret of Kells follows an apprentice “illuminator” tasked with finding oak galls in the forest to make ink – much to the chagrin of his uncle, the Abbot obsessed with building a wall around the Abbey to stop the invading Vikings.
With its occupied Ireland, protective patriarch and forest-dwelling wolf-girl, this 2009 debut feels very much like the first draft of 2020’s Wolfwalkers (the two films sandwich 2014’s Song of the Sea to form the studio’s Irish Folklore Trilogy). The beautiful, geometric animation is ripped from the pages of its fabled manuscript, but the characters are also flat as though rough sketches for those of Wolfwalkers.
Though the visual perspective is medieval, the political outlook is modern. “We cannot only build walls, the people must have books so they have hope,” says one monk, distilling the Obama/Trump dichotomy into a single line before either had even served as president/prolapsed bag of old salmon.
Where it shines is in what the picture calls “mesmerising detail,” essentially a mission statement for the young Irish studio. The dappled light and kaleidoscopic borders are mesmerising indeed, and a fight scene against the pagan god Crom is almost Tron-like in its snaking animation.
Also fully formed is Saloon’s ability to turn from delightful to dark on a dime, depicting the Vikings as faceless black forms and delivering its peril with a passion that transcends the limited characterisation. A tribute to nature and imagination, The Secret of Kells may fall slightly short of Cartoon Saloon’s later work but it is the best movie about Crom since Conan the Barbarian.