The Secret of Kells was the wild card in last year's Oscar animation race — the little Irish movie no one had heard of, let alone seen. Now it's available on DVD and animaniacs should be primed to happily pounce. Kells is a visually overwhelming labor of love, a hand-drawn medieval adventure tale that seeks and finds cosmic connections.
Yes, the kids will enjoy it as well. The hero of Kells is Brendan (voiced by Evan Maguire), a young boy who has been apprenticed to his forbidding uncle, the Abbott of Kells (Brendan Gleeson), and ordered never to leave the monastery. There are enough dangers out there — wolves, eldritch Celtic gods, rampaging Vikings — that the Abbott is obsessively building high walls to protect the monks and the illuminated manuscripts upon which they labor.
There’s a real Book of Kells — a 9th-century version of the New Testament renowned for its brilliant ornamentation, it’s considered Ireland’s national treasure — but it probably wasn’t created this way. The monks in The Secret of Kells are a consciously international lot and drawn by Tomm Moore with geometric glee: a big, domelike African, a toadstool-size Asian, a spherical Italian. The Abbott is a rectangular figure of authority, all corners, no curves. Brendan, blessedly, is a kid, although the lines of medieval illustration lift his face into a smile.
The appearance of Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), a puckish renegade fleeing the invaders, kicks the plot into gear. He encourages Brendan’s reckless artistic side and sends the boy out to the forest to gather materials for ink. There the movie lifts off into a Celtic eco-pantheism not far in feel from the work of Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Ponyo). Brendan befriends Aisling (Christen Mooney), a forest wild girl with mysterious connections to the animals, plants, and Druidic forces. On the plot level, then, The Secret of Kells is a kiddie adventure with twists and turns recognizable to fans of anime and the more adventurous U.S. animation.
On the visual level, the film is on a higher plane entirely. Moore roots Kells in the limited perspectives of medieval art — often to delightful effect — but the film keeps bursting into repeated patterns and motifs that dazzle the eye and that, by the climax, are consciously fractal, a vision of worlds within worlds within worlds. The movie belongs in the recent vanguard of arthouse animation along with Michel Ocelot’s Azur and Asmar and Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues — astonishing (and primarily hand-drawn) works that push the envelope of what the medium can do. The climactic sequence in which the Vikings finally attack might scare small fry if it weren’t so surreally, almost mathematically beautiful.
Admittedly, there has to be a bit of bait-and-switch in any story about the creation of an iconic Christian text that doesn’t actually mention Jesus (even if the grown Brendan does look quite beatific by the film’s final scenes). The Secret of Kells uses early Christian theology to access a wider, more universal sense of wonder — it’s a movie in which even the molecules feel illuminated.