Nestled among this year’s batch of best animated feature Oscar nominees was “The Secret of Kells,” a movie that received little distribution in the United States and had no spinoff video games or action figures. Heck, it wasn’t even made on computers.
But just a couple of minutes into this beautifully drawn, intricately rendered Irish import, you understand why it earned the Academy’s attention.
Directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, “The Secret of Kells” uses highly stylized artwork – a cross between Japanese anime and the sorts of illustrations that grace children’s storybooks – to tell the tale of mischievous Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), who lives in a medieval abbey under the care of his overprotective uncle (Brendan Gleeson).
Brendan is not allowed to leave the abbey’s walls, due to the constant threat of Viking invaders. But when a traveling monk (Mick Lally) asks the boy to help him finish illustrating a holy book by collecting berries for ink, Brendan disobeys his uncle and ventures into a nearby forest, where he encounters a friendly fairy, some not-so-friendly monsters and all sorts of adventures.
The story of “The Secret of Kells” is pitched at young viewers, but its artistry can be enjoyed by anyone with a taste for animation. Clean, broad character designs are juxtaposed against densely detailed backgrounds; cartoonish action is married to a gorgeous palette of lights and colors.
Abstract creations, such as a cat with an X for a mouth, express a surprising variety of emotions. At times, the film’s frames are surrounded by calligraphy and swirling patterns.
“The Secret of Kells” manages to feel simultaneously old-fashioned and mesmerizingly modern, and the slight story at its center has the emotional weight of a classic fable: a boy’s wild, fantastical adventure, simply told.