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The Secret of Kells

There weren’t many surprises on the list of Academy Award nominees a few months back, but the one that made everyone sit back and go, “Huh?” was this unknown title in the category of Best Animated Feature, on a list with the box office hits Coraline, Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Princess and the Frog. It didn’t win, but it is nonetheless the most singular animated feature to hit American screens since The Triplets of Belleville. Set in medieval Ireland, The Secret of Kells has a plot that isn’t terribly different from How to Train Your Dragon: A young boy named Brendan becomes a man by confronting his fears on a journey outside of his safety zone. He lives in the monastery at Kells with his uncle, the Abbott (voice of Brendan Gleeson). The Abbott used to work with other monks on illustrating manuscripts, but now is only concerned with fortifying his walls against the barbarian hordes from the north that have been terrorizing the land. Still, when an elderly monk arrives with a book he has saved from just such an attack, Brendan becomes enchanted with it and determines to help the old man complete it, even if it means venturing into the mysterious forest to gather supplies for ink.

The plot is serviceable, with a genuinely terrifying barbarian attack followed by a somewhat weak resolution. But the magic of this film is in the visuals. Co-directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey designed the movie as if it were one of those ornate, much-labored medieval manuscripts. Primarily hand-drawn (there is some inobtrusive computer work during the battle scenes), the images are flat, mirroring art from before the introduction of perspective. There’s seldom a frame that you wouldn’t like to blow up for further study, or simply to have for display. Discussing the real Book of Kells (you can see it next time you’re at Trinity College in Dublin), the film’s production notes say that “The workmanship is so fine that some of the details can only be clearly seen with a magnifying glass.” That’s true of this extraordinary movie, which needs to be seen in a theater and not placed in your Netflix queue: If you only see this on DVD, you won’t have seen it.

m. faust

Watch the trailer for The Secret of Kells

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