Enchanted Journey: Orphaned in a Viking raid, Brendan (left) now lives in the fortified Abbey of Kells.
When I say that The Secret of Kells a€” the Irish Oscar contender for Best Animated Feature that had everyone scratching their heads when it was announced a few weeks ago a€” harks back to an earlier style of drawing, I don't just mean pre-digital animation. Abbot Cellach (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) finds himself torn between conflicting imperatives: shoring up the abbey's defenses and completing a mystical illuminated manuscript.
The visual style the filmmakers have chosen is striking and quite beautiful at times, but deliberately flat, like pictures in a medieval manuscript.
But his talents and his natural curiosity drive him outdoors, to an enchanted forest where he meets the changeling girl Aisling. I mean the kind of drawing that monks did in the Middle Ages; those curlicued borders and ornate letters they hand-painted in holy books.


Trees are stylized, people geometric (one monk is triangular, another is essentially a curve with a bald patch), and the movement is as primitive as in Saturday morning cartoons. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. When you think that at the Oscars, The Secret of Kells is going up against Up, its chances seem slim a€” and probably are. In the film, there's a nod to traditional lore indicating that the manuscript originated at a Scottish abbey in Iona, and was then brought to Kells, where the illuminations were added. Its arrival thrills a young apprentice named Brendan, who's asked not just to help pluck goose quills for the other monks and find the right berries to make green ink, but also to do some of the drawing as they rush to complete the volume. Because after all, what else makes sense for bringing to life the gold and scarlet ornamentation in ancient manuscripts?


The artists protest that without books, knowledge will perish; he counters that without walls, they'll all perish. That medieval abbeys protected knowledge is historical, of course a€” the wisdom collected there helped Europe rebuild after the Dark Ages a€” but you wouldn't want the film to spend all its time on that.
So Brendan slips out into the woods where he meets a helpful sprite and a nasty monster, giving the animators a chance to play with form and format until the Vikings attack.



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