If there was an Oscar race worth following this year, it was the one for Best Animated Feature. Out of nowhere, The Secret of Kells, an enchantingly old-fashioned Irish upstart about a medieval boy monk who dreams of illuminating sacred books, tucked itself into an already juicy lineup that featured Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Up. No one was working the room on behalf of this gorgeously mounted tale of enlightenment through art and courage, and it didn't win, but the nomination and profile-raising were certainly well-deserved..
If you're older than 30, The Secret of Kells may take you back to the ethnic fairy-tale hardbacks of your childhood, with their glowing, gold-spun illustrations and tales of victory over wild beasts with slits for eyes. If you're younger, the movie will be a fresh take on the comic-book formula, with a carrot-topped hero, Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), possessed of more imaginative brio than can be contained by the cloistered life he leads under the overprotective eye of his uncle, the Abbott (Brendan Gleeson). A former illuminator reduced by bitter experience to a grump obsessed with security, the old patriarch registers his disillusion in the droop of his thick neck as he shuffles around, overseeing the building of a massive wall to keep encroaching Norsemen out of the monastery — and his inquisitive nephew in.
Until, that is, the arrival of a far peppier old artist (Mick Lally) with a gifted cat, an expansive outlook, and a mission for Brendan, whose talent he spots instantly. Incredible journey time! Once Brendan discovers that he has nothing to fear but fear itself — plus a forest full of shape-shifting menace, not to mention hordes of predatory Vikings bearing flame arrows and other red stuff that looks stunning on the screen — there's no stopping him, so long as he stays under the wing of Aisling (Christen Mooney), one of those long-haired Irish elf-girls who doubles as a helpful white wolf.
If The Secret of Kells — directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, along with fleets of animators in Ireland, Belgium, and France — is full of reverence for the power of books, it's also intoxicated with the possibilities of color, shapes, and patterns, most of them derived from nature. Influenced by medieval art and the actual Book of Kells (an illustrated manuscript containing the Four Gospels), the characters and landscape are hand-drawn, with help from a computer for the three-dimensional action sequences, forming an exquisitely etched riot of color that evokes the rapturous, gaudy abandon of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. Flowery meadows, wafting dandelion clocks, packs of baying wolves — all are grist for the film's palette of beauty.
Yet Moore and Twomey's sensibility leans more to Brothers Grimm than Team Disney. The inkberries that Brendan harvests from the forest to draw his marvelous patterns are as "stinky, like boar droppings," as they are essential to his blooming artistry. The only uplift we're offered at the end is the sight of a boy tripping out on adventure. Brendan couldn't care less about the Mouse House's great god self-esteem — he's too busy becoming competent, which, in tales of yore, is the same thing as growing up.