Opens Fri., March 19
"What in the holy hell is The Secret of Kells?" That question could be heard echoing across the Web when the Oscar nominations were announced. It seemed the Animated Film category, now expanded from three to five selections, had been padded with some mystery Irish film that briefly played to qualify for AMPAS consideration. What, no love for Sita Sings the Blues?
Finally ready to be seen by more than crusty Academy voters, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey's retro-fairytale is a piece of this unusually strong year for feature-length 'toons. It's no Fantastic Mr. Fox, but it's mightier than Coraline.
Harkening back to a long ago age of ethnic tall tales, The Secret of Kells tells of a medieval village of monks that serves as home and prison to inquisitive ginger kid Brendan (Evan McGuire). His uncle, the stern and humorless Abbott (Brendan Gleeson), has let his fears of the world outside the massive village walls- specifically nasty wolves and fire-arrow-wielding Norsemen- get the better of him. He rules through fear, which only stokes the imagination of his nephew even more. Sneaking outside the walls, Brendan runs afoul of a shape-shifting, pure-white elf girl, who serves as his protector.
This derivative albeit original story (devised by Tomm) heads in unexpected directions. But story isn't its strongest point.
Instead, it's the striking mix of hand-drawn and computer animation. The humans are charmingly rudimentary- they vaguely resemble the characters on The Critic- but the non-humans and the backgrounds are absurdly rich and eye-popping. Encouraged to go to the dark places from which today's parents tend to shield their kids, the animators dreamt up towering, inhuman vikings, mechanical-like wolves and an endless snake with a rectangular body. And while Ireland's calming pastoral green is accounted for, the animators' palette is vast- a rainbow of bold primary colors.
The Secret of Kells doesn't always give you something to think about, but it never fails to give you something to gawk at, happily slack-jawed.
Overly unusual protagonists and the requisite miserable Swedish locations aside, this is standard detective stuff.
Deep underneath this over-stuffed but relentlessly light farce lies fucked-up, near-Bergman-esque turmoil.