Like many animated features, "The Secret of Kells" features a child hero, a pet (in this case, a frisky white cat), and dangers to be overcome. But the Oscar-nominated film, an Irish-French-Belgian co-production, will probably appeal more to adults: art-lovers, and aficionados of medieval illuminated manuscripts.
Did I just say "medieval illuminated manuscripts"? That's right: The Book of Kells, the 8th-century volume of the New Testament gospels, is what the film is about. Or maybe it's about a lot of animators having a wonderful time creating exquisite images: partly derived from the book's swirly, geometric illuminations; partly based on watercolors; always enchanting. Mostly hand-drawn, the animation pulls you in so far that the story hardly matters.
But it's a charming story. Brendan (voice of Evan McGuire) is a boy monk living at the monastery of Kells. His uncle, the Abbot (Brendan Gleeson), is intent on building a wall around the abbey to fortify it against marauding Vikings. Brendan, on the other hand, prefers working with Father Aidan, an old monk who has sought shelter at the monastery, bringing with him an unfinished but marvelous book.
When Brendan ventures into the forest to find the berries Aidan needs for making ink, he meets Aisling (Christen Mooney), a helpful forest sprite, and an array of wolves and monsters. This part could get scary for little kids. Those same little kids won't understand what the Book of Kells is, or why the abbot is concerned with "saving civilization." The film makes little effort to explain the story's background.
But when the medieval illuminations come to life, none of that matters. Though the drawings were done by what looks like a whole army of animators, the movie has none of the feel of a work made by a committee. The music, mostly Irish in feel, is delightful, with some of the liveliest coming over the end titles.
For the record, the film was directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, written by Fabrice Ziolkowski, and produced by the same team that made "The Triplets of Belleville" and "Kirikou and the Sorceress."