If you’re yearning to see a film that’s beautiful, magical and unique, check out ‘The Secret of Kells,’ a children’s film that’s all of those things AND a great lesson in Celtic folk art and Irish history. Read my review of the film here.
It tells the story of a young boy named Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) who lives in a remote medieval monastery in the eighth century under the watchful eye of his uncle Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson).
Ireland is under siege from Viking raiders, but something happens at the monastery known as Kells to offer a little hope. Brother Aidan (Mick Lally) arrives with an ancient but unfinished illuminated manuscript, created to be “a beacon in these dark times.”
Despite his uncle’s opposition, Brendan realizes he wants to become an illuminator and complete the book. So he ventures into an enchanted forest where he encounters mythical creatures and meets a mysterious wolf-girl/fairy named Aisling (Christen Mooney). She helps him on his quest, requiring that he battle the monstrous pagan god Crom Cruach so that enlightenment will prevail.
‘The Secret of Kells’ was released on DVD and Blu-ray on Oct. 5, 2010, and it really ventures beyond filmmaking and into an art history lesson. In an era where everything is 3D and CG-animated, this film uses traditional hand-drawn animation to tell the story.
The animation was inspired by the eighth-century manuscript, The Book of Kells, which has been preserved in the library of Trinity College, Dublin. ‘The Secret of Kells’ was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, and also scored many wins at film festivals around the globe. Because some battle scenes and frightening images might be a little scary for very young kids, I recommend it for kids eight and older.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with the director, Tomm Moore. Read on to learn more about the making of the film.
Jane Boursaw: Thanks for doing the interview. It sounds like you’re pretty busy this week.
Tomm Moore: It’s kind of funny, because I arrived in New York, and it didn’t seem like I had much to do. It’s crazy how it’s filled up so fast. We’re releasing the DVD today, and we’re doing a presentation at Comic-Con this weekend. We screened the movie at the IFC Center and gave DVDs to each family, so that was kind of fun. I had a good time talking to the kids afterwards.
I read in your interview on Twitch Film that you originally thought about making it for an adult audience.
Yeah. I don’t think we really thought too hard about the audience in the original draft. We were like 23, 24 and straight out of college, so just sort of wrote something. Unfortunately, we were mainly writing a movie for 23-year-old animators. I mean, we had something there, but we had to really look at it again and try to re-imagine the whole thing through the eyes of the kids, through Brendan’s eyes. He was only a secondary character at that point, and he kind of became the primary character. The whole movie made much more sense that way.
How did the kids react when you were there and they were asking questions? Do you feel like they got it?
Yeah. I think overall, the kid’s questions were fairly consistent. I’m showing the film everywhere, like Morocco and France and all over the place. Generally, when you have a bunch of kids or a bunch of adults, the questions are similar … or the observations, at least, are similar. The kids are always really honest, which is refreshing. The adults are usually pretty honest too, I hope.
Sometimes I feel a bit guilty when I see a really young kid and she’s a bit scared or clutching her teddy bear tighter during the Viking scenes. Kids always seem to identify with Aisling, the little girl. They always have lots of questions about her because she’s kind of mysterious.
I write a syndicated movie column, so this interview and my review will go out to about 16.5 million readers, mainly parenting publications. What age do you recommend for this film? Because, like you said, some of the scary scenes might frighten very young kids.
It kind of depends on the kid, I think. If it’s a six-year-old who plays video games, he’s not going to have any problems. But if it’s a six-year-old who never sees that level of intensity, I wouldn’t bring them. But for me, it’s sort of six upwards, even eight upwards. My son was eight when I was first working on this, so he was my main test audience. He was an eight-year-old boy, but he wanted more monsters, more Vikings, more wolves.
I remember telling him the story on the way to school one day, and he said, “It really needs a bear, Dad.”
We were trying to figure out exactly what Brendan going to face in the cave, and Ben had the idea about seeing a monster like the monsters in The Book of Kells.
You’ve probably answered this question a million times, but how did you ever come up with the idea to make a movie about The Book of Kells?
We were in college, and we thought what kind of animation could we do based on Irish art? So we had the idea to based something on Irish art first, and the story and history of The Book of Kells seemed to have enough in it that we could write a film.
Before I even read anything about the film or your background, I watched the movie and thought, “This is like a work of art.” So even people like me who aren’t schooled in art can see that it was a big part of the making of the film. Did you come at it that way from the very beginning, or did the artwork get blended into it as you went along?
If you look at the galleries on the DVD, you can see it was a bit more Disney inspired, less true to the art of the time. So, we went further and further into developing something that looked totally different from any other animation that was being done. And then, during the period that we were developing the project, computer animation came on the scene with really strong, realistic stuff. So, it really pushed us to go even more graphic and more inspired by medieval art and folk art to try and do something different.
I see some Chuck Jones in there, and some of those early American cartoons.
Yeah, I’m a big Chuck Jones fan, and it’s drawn on that tradition of classic 2D animation. I used to tell the animators that you don’t need to do super realistic stuff. I love really early Disney like ‘Bambi,’ which I think was much more daring, dark and quite powerful. People don’t normally associate Disney movies with anything overly intense, but if you look at the early stuff like ‘Bambi’ and ‘Pinocchio,’ it’s actually pretty daring.
I just love it when independent films like this come out nowhere. I don’t think a lot of people really knew about ‘Kells’ before it was nominated for an Oscar.
I’m pretty sure nobody knew about it! You know, a very small circle of animation friends.
What’s it been like for you having your film nominated for an Oscar?
It’s more than we ever hoped or expected would happen. It was real labor of love for a long time, and we hoped it would find an audience. But now with the DVD release here in the States, I think it’s going to find a much broader audience than it would have otherwise. So, that’s fantastic.
I love the fact that it’s a film where clearly a lot of work has gone into it. Not just the animation, but the whole thought behind it, the artwork, the culture. I love that it’s coming to this generation of kids, because so many kids’ films are just sort of slapped together these days.
Yeah, they’re more commercial. When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to have a lot of [artistic] films around me.
Well, you kind of hope that more filmmakers will jump on that.
There’s some interesting stuff happening. It’s a good time in animation. This year’s Oscars were pretty interesting, because there were two hand-drawn films (‘Kells’ and ‘The Princess and the Frog’), and two stop-motion films (‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ and ‘Coraline’). So, it’s heartening because it was only three or four years ago when it seemed like every single movie was animals and fart jokes. So it was pretty amazing to be in that group. That was a major, major win for me.
Were you surprised to be nominated?
Definitely. We’d been doing kind of well in the festivals, had won quite a lot of prizes and we sort of thought that our race had been run. We hadn’t really opened in America. We had a couple of screenings just to qualify for the Oscars, but I didn’t really think we had much of a chance. There was a lovely film called ‘Mary and Max’ by a guy who’d won an Oscar already, so between that and the big studio films like ‘Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,’ I didn’t think we had a chance of being even nominated. So, it was pretty amazing.
And you had worked with Bruno [Coulais] on the music, and then he went on to work on ‘Coraline’ — and both films were nominated for Oscars.
What was interesting is that it took us so long to get this film made, Bruno started working with us and then he had to stop while we were working on the animation. He gave us some temporary music, and then went off and composed the entire score for us, came back and recorded the music when he was just about finished with ‘Coraline.’ So, they ended up being kind of concurrent.
The music is so beautiful.
Yeah, we were really lucky to work with him.
Christen Mooney — the girl who voiced the character of Aisling — did she sing that haunting song?
Yeah, she was only eight when she did it. I’m kind of proud we discovered her. If you ever go to Ireland, you’ll see her everywhere. She’s on ads for soup and everything. But she was only eight, and really hadn’t done anything before that. When she first came in, we thought she was too young. She was eight, but she looked about six or maybe even five. But her performance was just amazing. It was just that kind of magic thing whenever somebody absolutely fits a role, you know?
That song is just beautiful. A moment.
We were worried about it, because her mom was going, “Oh, her sister is a better singer.” So her mother was kind of saying, “She’s not really a great singer,” but I thought there was something really endearing about her voice, because it wasn’t really strong and polished. It was really like a little girl singing.
With animated films, sometimes audiences don’t get a real feel for the era, but that’s certainly not the case here. Were you hoping that audiences would go away with a better sense of Irish culture and history?
Yeah, an underlying theme that art and culture are important even in difficult times. There’s something very universal there.
Being a self-employed entrepreneur myself, I wondered what led you to start your own production company. Why didn’t you go to work as an animator for another production company?
I still think about that sometimes, and it’s something I’ll probably do at some point in my career. What happened was I went to Ballyfermot College in Dublin; [the animation department] had been set up by Don Bluth, and in my first year of college, he shut down his studio and moved it to Phoenix, Arizona. So it sort of took the end goal away, but it was really quite a good thing because it opened up a space for me to think about what we could do or sell in Ireland.
So, we set up Cartoon Saloon, and it became a labor of love to try and make the first Irish animated feature. The idea was to finish the film before I was 30 and move on and get a job somewhere. Now I’m kind of addicted to it and trying it again.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on another feature film called ‘Song of the Sea.’ I’m always working on other stuff in the studio, like commercials or service work for bigger companies, but again, the dream is to make another film. It’s kind of a continuation of ‘The Secret of Kells,’ but it’s definitely not a sequel. It’s a different story set in modern times, but it explores some of the themes and ideas I came upon while working on ‘Kells.’ It’s more of a modern fairytale, I suppose … and the adults who enjoyed ‘Kells’ will still enjoy it because of the artwork, but it’s for younger kids because those are the kids that need to know about the stuff we’re talking about, how folklore fits into modern society.
Will it have the same look as ‘Kells’ then?
To some extent. We’re going in a slightly different direction, but we’re still doing everything by hand and keeping that kind of watercolor storybook look.