In contrast to big-budget Hollywood CG features, The Secret of Kells is a welcome reminder of how warm, personal, and compelling traditional drawn animation can be.
The story takes place in the eighth century, a perilous time when Viking raiders threatened to destroy Irish civilization. Since his parents were killed by Vikings, 12-year-old Brendan (voice by Evan McGuire) has lived within the walled monastery of Kells under the stern eye of his uncle, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson). But his life changes when Brother Aidan (Mick Lally) arrives at Kells with a wondrously beautiful but unfinished illuminated manuscript, created to be "a beacon in these dark times."
Brendan realizes he wants to become an illuminator and complete the book, despite his uncle's opposition. His decision helps him win the friendship of Aisling (Christen Mooney), a silver-haired wood fairy--and requires him to battle the monstrous pagan god Crom Cruach. The visuals in The Secret of Kells were inspired by the eighth-century manuscript the Book of Kells, which has been preserved in the library of Trinity College, Dublin.
Fans of Samurai Jack will recognize another influence on the flat, angular figures and their stylized movements. Brendan's adventures are exciting enough to keep children entertained, while its graphic beauties will delight adult viewers.
The Secret of Kells surprised many observers when it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, and it's a film no one interested in animation should miss. (Unrated: suitable for ages 8 and older: some scary imagery and violence.) --Charles Solomon